THE death of courtesy has been a long time coming, but come it has. And social media is one of its assassins.
Why can’t the wonderfully witty Miss Manners (a.k.a. Judith Martin) set this situation to rights? The syndicated American columnist has been answering etiquette questions in newspapers since 1978 and is an absolute delight, as snide and funny as she is correct. I’ll never forget the advice she once gave somebody who asked her, years ago, “What am I supposed to say when I am introduced to a homosexual ‘couple’?” Her answer: “How do you do?” “How do you do?”
Who wouldn’t admire a woman who, when asked, “If you had a single piece of advice to offer a couple who want to break into society, what would it be?” responded with a succinct “Don’t bother”?
Martin’s beautifully designed website tells you all about her. “Born a perfect lady in an imperfect society, Miss Manners is the pioneer mother of today’s civility movement. Now if she could only persuade people to practice civility as much as they talk about it….” Ouch.
I certainly hope that modern-day parents whose kids are planning to get hitched always give them Miss Manners’ Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding, well in advance. That way, everybody can avoid the reception scavenger hunt and fresh tattoo keepsake. Martin’s book Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, which my mum gave me before my own wedding, has held a sacred spot on my bookshelf for more than 30 years. I can’t claim to have read the whole thing more than once – which explains plenty – but it remains as entertaining and useful as ever.
It’s been updated, and I bought the 2011 digital version the other day in hopes of guidelines related to social media and the technology that goes with it. Although Martin addresses such issues as speaking on cellphones in public, the 70-something is clearly not immersed in the wonderful world of modern-day gadgetry and therefore has established few protocols for it.
She has, however, consistently admonished her “gentle readers” for lecturing their friends, associates and business contacts on how to behave in all kinds of circumstances. Evidently that’s extremely rude. Miss Manners herself claims never to give advice unless asked, so here’s me, asking. I’m not sure we’ve more urgently needed her input.
“Netiquette” may exist, you see, but nobody seems to know or observe its rules, so anarchy prevails. A scan of Internet articles about it offers suggestions like “Don’t type in all caps” because it looks like you’re yelling. Where etiquette’s essence is simply the Golden Rule -- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you –- netiquette has no such subtext.
I’d suggest that the essence of social netiquette ought to be that one should be polite and considerate whenever one is communicating with friends or strangers, and that one should respond to them as promptly, courteously and honestly as possible.
Is that so hard? Apparently, it is.
The other day, a friend whom I’ll call Chelsea told me how offended she was that her pal, Kim was ignoring her texts. Chelsea was supposed to attend a party in Kim’s honour, had arranged to take time off work, and wanted to make sure the date was written in stone. For days, Kim simply didn’t answer Chelsea’s texts. All the while, Kim could be publicly seen lollygagging on Facebook, sharing photographs, commenting warmly on others’ posts, etcetera.Chelsea was left wondering why she’d lavish her scant time and energy on a party for someone who didn’t have the decency to return a close friend’s message.
This is the trouble now: the appearance of a new kind of social transparency. If you’re constantly on social media, people know it. Once, if you wanted to be left alone, you could let the phone ring and friends would leave you a message. They didn’t know whether you were out of town, in a funk or happily having fun with someone else. You’d return the call when you were free and in the right frame of mind -- even faster, if required.
Nowadays, people might be avoiding you because they’re busy working, but if you see them bustling around Facebook posting time-lapse videos of sprouting sunflowers or aphorisms they’ve found in self-help books, you know they have plenty of time for drivel, but none for you. It’s a snub, and, trust me, whether it’s meant that way or not, that’s how it’s felt.
I’m no Miss Manners, but I know this much: If you’re sent a personal message by a friend or business contact, you should answer it as soon as you can, even if all you can offer at the moment is “I’ll get back to you.” But being relatively polite, I can’t tell that to Kim, and neither can Chelsea. We could, however, casually send Kim Miss Manners’ Guide to Fortuitously Inspiring Social Netiquette, if only Judith Martin would be a pal and write it.