Mean Behind The Screen

I was an amateur ballerina for eight years. I did not have a bright future as a dancer, but I did know the rules of the classroom. At the beginnings and ends of lessons, we had to acknowledge our teacher with a curtsy. Why an open-legged squat is a sign of respect remains a mystery to me. The rule, however, makes sense: in every interaction, we must begin and end with respect.

Outside of the mirrored walls of the ballet class, we see a handful of ways we show courtesy for one another in our communication even before we start: handshakes at meetings, warm greetings to start conversations, using formal prefixes for people we are just meeting. These symbols of courtesy have evolved alongside our communication and are practically intrinsic in any exchange- unless we are speaking through screens.

Chatting changed with the advent of e-mail, followed quickly by messaging, texting, then posting. We are less formal, we are more expedient. “You” becomes “u”, we omit punctuation entirely, we abbreviate “in my opinion” to IMO. We want to hurry-up and say our piece. Our fast-tracked communication has lost more than just grammar, spelling and full words. Somewhere along the line, we dropped basic courtesy.

Courtesy, at its plainest, is defined as behaviour marked by respect for others. In our community, it is on regular display outside.  A grocery line is not complete without a routine battle of the “sorries” between kind customers (“Were you here? I’m sorry, you go ahead” “No I’m sorry, you first, please”). Even a brief conversation downtown starts with a quick inquiry about our health (“How’re ya now?”) These exchanges, like a curtsey or a handshake, show our general respect for each other that transcends whatever the eventual conversation subject may be.

When we move behind our screens, our small-town familiarity and mutual respect is lost. Instead of assuming the best of people, we can assume the worst. Instead of looking out for one another, we can fall into the trap of throwing each other under the bus. Whether it be a garbage debate, the firefighter debate, or even a Tim Hortons debate, online conversations about “hot topics” can divide even the tightest of little communities.

In recent community discussions on several social media pages, a “thread” (group of typed posts) begins with one neighbour’s take on a hot topic. People respond by posting their own hot takes on the topic: usually brief, rarely without typos. In too many cases, the conversation devolves into mockery, name-calling, blocking and sometimes even aggression. On both sides of the battle: upstanding and kind members of our community.

How can we be so kind on the streets but so mean behind a screen?

On the streets in Deep River, we are not anonymous: we are recognizable, we are public. When we are behind a screen, it gives us the illusion of anonymity and privacy. We can say things we otherwise would not say. We behave as though our online personalities exist in a bubble. We have forgotten that we are still accountable for the things we say from the privacy of our smartphones. We ignore that the people receiving our words are our neighbours, colleagues and friends.

The benefits of aggressive posting cannot outweigh its problems. It is foolish to think that a single post or reply to a post will drastically change a complex issue on its own. It is very unlikely that a post can even change one person’s mind. However, an aggressive threat or mean-spirited joke can certainly have a detrimental effect on the typist’s own reputation, on the recipient’s sense of well-being, and on the general feeling of inclusivity and respect in a community.

In a community where we thrive on our mutual support, our reputations for kindness, and our heightened respect for one another, we must keep courtesy at the forefront of every interaction we have. The upside to the internet is that we have a moment at the end of a typed rant to reflect before we click “post” or “send”. We can choose to edit and amend to ensure we have shown respect to one another throughout the post. Online communication may not have a shortcut to show respect, it does not mean that we should forget about courtesy altogether.

In Deep River, our community members are too nice on the streets to be mean behind the screen. We need to hold our online communication to the same kindness standards we have in public exchanges.  Whether it be a ballet class, a Town Hall meeting, or an online exchange, we must begin and end with courtesy.

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