Keep Mom on Your Shoulder

By Heidi Happonen

If you don’t have anything nice to say…

We all know how the rest goes.

Prevailing wisdom advises that we bite our tongues because it’s good for others. We don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, so we are nice. At least that’s what Mom always told us.

And that’s certainly true…in part.

But if we really examine the verbal barb, straight-up meanness says more about the person hurling the insult than the one receiving it.

This truism plays out differently online, where people either feel cloaked by their pseudo-anonymity or they take their barbs to the extreme of cyberbullying that has made some waves in the news.

What should our etiquette be online? Where does honest dialogue end and meanness begin?

And what does our tendency for meanness say about us as a society?

This issue rears its head in particular during election years, when even those who aspire to lead the free world can get a little, well, mean.

It’s not enough to disagree with the opponent. You’ve got to take the guy down.

It’s not enough to question the motives of the other side. Sarcasm often gets used as a crutch to get away with character assassination.

Look, we’re all prone to speak before we think from time to time, but in the online social sphere, it seems we are more prone to knee-jerk meanness. Which is baffling since the effort of logging in, thinking of a nasty quip, and then typing it into a limited space is oh so much more time consuming that a trip of the tongue.

Every poll in conducted in the past six months indicates a spike in online meanness and bullying. According to CBS News, citing an AP/MTV poll, 56 percent of teens and young adults say they’ve been a target of mean behavior.

Grownups aren’t much better.

According to Media Tapper, one of the most common complaints people have today about social media sites, forums, message boards, etc is rudeness, foul language, disrespect and an overall lack of civility.

This is a particular challenge for PR pros charged with monitoring and building online channels for clients. While we certainly don’t want to discourage audiences to engage in the free exchange of ideas, including disagreements, where do we intervene or even make the call that a comment crosses a line and needs to be removed?

Our impulse may be to respond to mean-spirited quips defensively, but more often than not there is simply a frustration that the individual posting the affront could have thought a bit more about simply being nice. A thoughtful question has such great potential to build constructive dialogue. Name calling…not so much. Meanness doesn’t just reflect badly on the commenter; it’s a lost opportunity for honest dialogue.

The potential for growing online communities is profound, not only in terms of how our clients are able to interact with their audiences but in terms of how we are able to expand our ability to interact with each other.

With that in mind, we might all be better off if we simply imagined we are posting with Mom looking over our shoulder. Are we making her proud? Are we being “nice?”

Perhaps we’d all be better served if we asked ourselves “what would Mom think about me saying this?” before we hit “send,” “share,” or “upload.” Maybe if we all start treating each other with a bit more respect, we might just find it not only makes the online world a nicer place, but it might just make us better people.

Hey, we all hate to admit it when Mom is right, but let’s be honest. She usually is.

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About Shea

Senior Editor and Account Supervisor at The Fearey Group in Seattle. I'm Tweeting under @thatshea, but any opinions you see there are my own. Thanks for reading.

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