When I was little, I learned the old adage, “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you.” But that was before the internet and social media. Before, we had societal shame and advice columns like Emily Post to chastise people into better behavior and keep civility in check. Now it seems that anything goes. Not only do we have a president who lies regularly and tweets hateful messages, but we have social media filled with trolls, who attack and threaten others for kicks. Manners and a sense of propriety have been replaced by anonymous haters who go to great lengths to topple authority, threaten women and minorities, and instill fear in everyone else. In addition, we have a situation in which normally nice people who behave well in real life, become thoughtless online, posting pictures from parties that many weren’t invited to. They brag incessantly about their kids’ accomplishments or how “blessed” they are by all the abundance in their lives, hiding all that isn’t working, and leaving us to feel that we truly can’t keep up with the Joneses.
Last fall, Time Magazine wrote an article called “Why We’re Losing the Internet to the Culture of Hate,” stating, “Now if you need help improving your upload speeds, the web is eager to help with technical details, but if you tell it you’re struggling with depression it will goad you into killing yourself.” There are in fact too many cases of sad, lonely teens searching for answers on social media, who find bullies who remind them that they are better off dead. Countless teens have taken their own lives after anonymous trollers on Ask.fm advise them to cut themselves, hang themselves, or “drink bleach and die.” Most parents have no idea this is going on. Even beyond teens, the internet can be a toxic place for adults. Anita Sarkeesian, who spoke out against misogyny in video games, received rape threats online and bomb threats at speaking engagements, and Jonathan Weisman, from the New York Times, received so much anti-Semitic hate mail, that he quit Twitter, in spite of 35,000 followers.
Beyond trolls and cyber-bullying, there is a mean-spiritedness that infects social media. Many people have lost a sense of what is right and good in how we treat others online, even our so called “friends” on Facebook. Last weekend, I found out that I hadn’t been invited to a family friend’s daughters wedding, even though I have known the family for over 15 years, we are regularly in touch, and I was asked last fall for ideas for reception venues. There is nothing like seeing pictures of a wedding you should have been invited to. It’s like a punch to the gut. But people do this all the time. A few years ago, a woman I used to know well got married with weddings on both coasts and posted ongoing pictures of the wedding not for a few days or a few weeks but in fact a few months. Three years later, she is still posting wedding pictures. I don’t think anyone would tolerate this offline, but online, it’s a brave new world.
I recently read about a bride who actually emailed all of the people whom she didn’t invite to her wedding before the wedding, explaining in detail why they weren’t invited. Do we really need to spell out that you’re not as close to your pals from Zumba class? Apparently, “you’re not invited” notifications are becoming increasingly common. I personally blame reality tv shows like Real Housewives and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Put a bunch of unintelligent, heavily made up, angry and bored people together and you get season after season of drama and cat fights. People seem to love these shows the way people love rubber necking. It’s watching someone else’s misery and feeling better about your own life, but still wishing for their wardrobe. I do wonder what my grandmother “Ganny” would say about all this if she were still alive. She believed in always being a lady, which meant using good manners at all times, and making one’s guests feel welcome. Once at a dinner party, a guest spilled red wine on the white table linens and was mortified. So Ganny spilled wine too to make the guest feel better and smooth the situation. She would be horrified by how people talk and dress and act today, with way too much skin showing, glued to their phones, and bragging and diminishing others at every turn. The fact is that civility is what makes life pleasant. All the characters in Jane Austen novels knew that, but we have somehow forgotten.
To claim your world stage, remember to use the same manners online that you use offline. People’s feelings matter, and in spite of the adage about sticks and stones, words can hurt. Remember the Golden Rule of treating others the way you want to be treated. Don’t post pictures of your wedding online and please stop the endless bragging about your kids. You kids don’t like it and neither does anyone else. And if you encounter a troll, remember that in the end, they will come back in their next life as a cockroach. Because civility is in short supply, the more classy and gracious you are, the more you will stand out.