The Importance Of Minding Your Online Manners

Frustrated businesswoman with laptop computer
Frustrated businesswoman with laptop computer

Think Twice, Write Once

A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.

-- Robert Heinlein, Friday

Because I was not brought up by wolves, I know what good manners are. I know, for example, that being unpunctual is ill-mannered. It is impolite. It shows disrespect to the person you are meeting; it shows disrespect for the event you are attending. Be that as it may, for about four years, I have run on Kato Standard Time, which is approximately 10-15 minutes after GMT, plus or minus the time zone of choice.

I make no excuses for it. My lateness is a direct response to being on military time for over a decade, and thankfully those close to me understand.

I am in fact generally a bit of a bore when it comes to etiquette, and not being rude. Good manners are important to me, and I have bugbears about those things I feel constitute a lack of consideration for others, one of which is something I've personally struggled to control since I was old enough to look "sarcasm" up in the dictionary, and think "sounds like a plan."

When I was 13, and had reduced my younger brother to tears (yet again) with a heartless piece of frippery -- I believe it was a repetition of my understanding that he was adopted, and was now no longer wanted. My mother said:

"You don't have to use your fists to injure someone, Kate. Your words bruise, too."

It took me a little while to get there, but eventually I saw her point. Words hurt like hell, and it's the height of bad manners to use them as weapons, especially if you have the intelligence to do so.

We all get the concept of online trolls. If you've suffered at their hands, you have my utmost empathy. They are keyboard warriors, these self-titled kings and queens of the ether; their lives consist of a twilight malice in wonderland, with a greedy pleasure taken in hounding the popular, the moderate and the cause-centric across the world's screens. If brought face to face with their victims, invariably they fold into a cheap card deck of cowardice, muttering imprecations. Sinking back into their approximation of humanity, they are usually quiescent after confrontation, but the damage they inflict can, and does, end in heartbreak and shouldn't be denied.

Words hurt like hell, and it's the height of bad manners to use them as weapons, especially if you have the intelligence to do so.

They are, though, to my reasoning, not the backbone of this problem. Trolls hold little significance in the long-term, for how can those who are, at base, spineless, collapse a societal skeleton? Rather, it's those individuals with a genuine understanding of what it means to act with impropriety, who know just what words can do, who are the dangerous ones.

They are the camouflaged killers; the Manhattan Project of potential in terms of intellect, with an innate knowledge of what is right and wrong. They are Fat Man and Little Boy, dropping towards their targets in the steady pressing of a keyboard's letters, spelling out Hiroshima and Nagasaki as they blast white our hearts and minds.

They are the ones rapidly turning the phrase "think before you speak" into the quizzical screwed-up face of a half-forgotten saw, rather than the virtual world's expected and accepted good manners.

Think. Think. How many times have you seen people you know -- intelligent, professional people -- make comments online with absolutely no foundation, background or context? Before you think "pot calling a sanctimonious and hypocritical kettle black, Ms Kate. Your Twitter feed is rife with rugby rubbishings" -- stop. Think.

My tweets are indeed awash with my disappointment (and my tears). I was quite vocal in my belief that the Wallabies couldn't play their way out of a wet paper bag a few days ago, but did I attack any personal characteristics of players? I talked about skills lacking, but that was it. I wrote with respect to the game, and anyone who saw my remarks will know I was restraining myself. A lot. Just as I don't use hard swearing in my public posts, I attempt to remember my Mum's words; how would I feel to be on the end of my own commentary? And I edit, and I think, and I pull back. No bomb bay doors opening.

But this isn't the case for a surprisingly large percentage of the cognoscenti, who feel it's perfectly okay to comment in terms so derogatory or insulting it boggles the mind, to friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends, whom they have never met. Or else to perfect strangers, and directly at that. To flatly insult -- not debate, insult -- choice of religion, sexual preference, political affiliation. To give a true to life example, this is a comment I witnessed the other day.

A friend of mine made a suggestion to X about being brave and exploring a new medium (yes, this is an intentional pun) for themselves, rather than relying on the reports of others on what it was all about. The response? To put in writing, and in tones of contempt and sarcasm, without provocation, to a person they have never met, in a closed but still sizable forum, that they have "obvious mental issues," and must be deeply unhappy.

The kicker for me was their declaration of how much they valued good manners.

Every day, in our middle world of a thousand social media platforms, as we selfie and snapchat our way to Virtual Valhalla, there are too many people who have seemingly lost the ability to be measured in their words. Instead, they merely transfer their brain's raw thinking to their busily typing fingertips.

It's as though a Crypto-Loki has decided to make mischief one last time by putting Malware in their souls, as the Twilight of the Gods approaches, and the Tree of Life burns to ash, inscribed with the cursed words of a million million unconsidered text messages.

Rapidly, bespoke expression is becoming nothing but a memory; a museum entry to be marked "online manners, lost art of, the: last seen in public use in 2005 AD. look under 't' for taking thought and care when it comes to putting words on a screen."

I have been horrified (although not surprised, to my resignation) by the lack of good manners shown by people such as Donald Trump towards the victims, their families and the LGBTQIA community generally since the shooting deaths in Orlando last week.

What has horrified me more... the bad manners shown by people within their own small social groupings towards those who died, and those who loved them, through thoughtless commentary on their deaths and judgement calls on their lives.

The ability to think before we speak, or write, will become limited to those who are willing to pay the cost, and a dear cost it is

Whatever happened to, in tailoring parlance, "think twice, write once"? Taking care of the material of people's lives; marking the pattern of one's words out, checking the fit carefully. Ensuring there are no sharp pins to the psyche, no needles to jab those we love, or even -- especially -- those we don't know, still reeling from the chalked outline of our opinions.

Tacking thoughts on a mental dressmaker's dummy of consideration, taking the shears to the keyboard for any final edits, before "post," "tweet," or "publish" is hit.

This tailored approach is what gives us an ability to be polite. It points us towards the angel rather than the ape; and even perhaps to an afterlife of cosmic good karma, where surely manners are seen as essential for those heavenly high teas.

It's the critical mass approach in a lack of care for others, both those we don't know, and those who are known to us from a distance, which to me is the biggest illustration of the beginning of our cultural end. There's an ease of use that comes with a cheap social mass manufacturing of our minds, and which will simply prove too cost-effective for the majority. In turn, the ability to think before we speak, or write, will become limited to those who are willing to pay the cost, and a dear cost it is. Because to stop, take a moment, and tailor the tone of our public output?

It means minding our manners, and sticking our opinions -- at least, the unwonted ones -- back in our cerebral pin cushions.

Politeness [is] a sign of dignity, not subservience.

-- Theodore Roosevelt

A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.