Etiquette has served as a code of social behavior for centuries, evolving with the social norms of the day. For example, disciplinary actions completely acceptable in the 1950s are now considered in poor taste. Decades from now, the way we conduct ourselves socially from here onward on Facebook and other social media venues will also likely be viewed with equal disdain.
Let’s take a step back first. While growing up in the late 1950s, anyone’s parents had the authority to discipline you—and I mean smack you—if you were out of line on their watch. Discipline was more physical back then, to enforce rules of good behavior, which is anything but the rule of thumb today.
My classmate Don held the wildest coed birthday and dance parties (with 45-rpm records), but under one condition: His mom would threaten us by saying, “I have permission from your parents to hit you if you’re bad.” Could you imagine that happening today? That lady would be dragged into jail and sued by the parents. Today, someone would capture a parent’s misdemeanor on his or her smartphone, and some mother monitoring the event at her command central would see it. And, if you were wondering, yes, I was smacked in the back of the head during these parties and when I got home—and once my parents received the full report from Don’s mom, they walloped me with a replay hit.
The main issue was that my mom was embarrassed to hear such accusations about her wonderful son. Either way, it was my solemn duty to deflect any guilt or wrongdoing. That’s why I can relate to comedian Jon Lovett’s routine of excuses for any wrongdoing. If you threw your friend under the bus, so to speak, you’d pay later in the schoolyard with a stern conversation, threat, beating or all three.
Today, people “out” each other like it’s a moral obligation or a class they passed in school. Where do the trust and bonding come in? Unless someone has really hurt someone else, relax. In the past when people didn’t expose a misgiving, that’s when they usually made a new friend or gained the respect of others.
My first case of being exposed publicly was in my eighth-grade class newsletter. Paul R., who was the brains of our grammar school class, authored the article. He was a non-athlete, so generally we were not exchanging hugs or Christmas cards. When he reported the happenings of our class in his newsletter, there was a twinge of concern among the rest of us that our missteps could be revealed.
Overall, it was an early lesson in public relations: Be nice to the press and try to get your story told before the reporters write what they please. I don’t remember anything specific, but I do remember the stress as his publication dates neared.
I wonder what my stress levels would be today with the threat of a social media attack in school. I’d probably sleep with one eye open and be fixed on Tweetdeck or Facebook. Again, I really do not understand the glee and enthusiasm today around exposing others and making someone look bad while hiding behind a tweet, hotline, post or blog. Some teenagers are always going to be jerks and say stupid stuff in person, and that’s life, but exposing folks or bullying them online is so cowardly and lame.
These reactions read by thousands place a lot of pressure on kids who are trying to both just fit in and succeed. It is a sad commentary on life. The grapevine was tough enough, but at least our accusers had to go eyeball to eyeball with the accusee eventually, and thus never went too far at the Farnsworth schoolyard. We worked through it sociably, not on social media. Decades from now, I fear the generations to follow will have lost something human: respect.
Al Maag is the Chief Communications Officer at Avnet Inc.