The latest attacks on Ivanka Trump in which she’s called a horrid name is just more evidence of the breakdown of civility and manners in our society. We see it everywhere on social media. I too have been guilty of lashing out, getting caught up in arguments and throwing dignity to the wind — to my own shame. We know too well the verbal degeneracy that infests public discourse, and we discuss it ad nauseam. But what we don’t talk about as much is the opposite problem — the decadency of silence.
Just as online communication has increased hostilities and given us a platform to yell from the rooftops like unhinged harpies, it has given us means to remain silent when we should respond, hide when we should courageously face others, and ignore when we should recognize. I’m not talking about conversations on Twitter or a host of emails from strangers. Most of the time in that space, not speaking is best. I’m talking about silence among business associates, friends, and intimate relations. That silence is to our shame.
This might seem like a trivial thing, but I’ve heard complaints about it for so many years from so many people that I decided to write on it. The email has become an excuse for the inexcusable. The silent treatment is a dehumanizing and disrespectful method of control. It’s rude, to say the least. Some might think it is just a minor issue considering the many important concerns we juggle every day, but as Lord Chesterfield once said, the little things weave together the fabric of society, and manners are inextricably bound to morals.
Moral virtues are the foundation of society in general, and of friendship in particular; but attentions, manners, and graces, both adorn and strengthen them. … Great merit, or great failings, will make you respected or despised; but trifles, little attentions, mere nothings, either done or reflected, will make you either liked or disliked, in the general run of the world.
In her quintessential book on etiquette, Emily Post began her introduction with reference to the Ten Commandments, reminding her readers that the heart of manners is kindness and love for others. To show courtesy without kindness is hypocrisy, but kindness cannot exist without courtesy and respect. To be gracious to others is to focus on the little things, and speaking when spoken to is simple enough — even if it’s through email.
The excuse one often hears about not responding to emails is “I’m too busy.” That’s rubbish. There are too many organizational tools at our disposal to use busyness as an excuse, and it doesn’t take much time to send a brief response to someone you know. Why leave the sender wondering if you received their message? Why fail to respond if not for lack of concern or grace? What are you saying in that moment except you simply don’t care? If you value people and relationships, why not answer?
To share an anecdote, I had the pleasure of working with someone in the past who is by far one of the busiest people I know. He never failed to answer an email or message, even if it was, “I can’t answer now but will as soon as possible.” When my email didn’t involve an inquiry, he would still say something to let me know he received it. He was a gentleman who chose to show courtesy even in this small way. I think all of us could do the same.
Why is this important? Why am I taking the time to write about something that should be common sense? It’s important because communication is part of our shared humanity. We already live in an isolated age that is growing more isolated. Electronic communications separate us as much as they connect us, if not more so. We are growing distant and failing to treat one another with dignity and respect. We don’t “know” one another anymore because we don’t really communicate anymore. Friendship is failing, human connection is fraying, and the result is a dysfunctional society.
Silence is just as much a part of this decline as harsh confrontation. When we don’t respond to those who communicate with us, we are silently saying to them, “You don’t matter. You are not worthy.” This kind of behavior flies in the face of virtue, and virtue is necessary for a society to thrive.
Commenting on manners, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “We feel the gentlemanly character present with us, whenever, under all circumstances of social intercourse, the trivial, not less than the important, through the whole detail of his manners and deportment, and with the ease of habit, a person shows respect to others.” The same could be said of a lady.
Showing this kind of respect is hard. It’s easier to turn away, to treat others as inferiors or unimportant. In doing this, we rob others of what they deserve as fellow human beings — equality and an inherent sense of value. But we also rob ourselves as well. When we refuse to communicate because we simply don’t care to take the time, we are hardening ourselves against others, draining affection from our own souls. We are isolating ourselves by pushing others away. Connections that could be formed are lost.
If we are refusing to respond because of some conflict, anger toward the person, irritation, maybe even frustration because they communicate too much, we are robbing ourselves of developing courage and grace. When we are forced to face our foes, we become stronger for it. We learn to speak truth in love. We learn to be bold instead of choosing passive-aggressive cowardice. We learn to listen and bend to the challenge of showing grace instead of slamming a door.
We can do better. We should do better, for ourselves, friendship, and our society. Having said this, I must add a caveat: if someone is abusive, they might need to be shut off and a boundary imposed, but even then we need to find the courage to explain why we’re closing the door. As long as they’re not a threat to our safety, they deserve that much.
Yes, the Samantha Bees of the world are a stain on our public discourse, dragging our country into the gutter. We should all look in the mirror and check any behaviors that are similar, as I admit I have done. But we cannot forget there are more problems in our communication than this. We are being numbed to one another with silence and disregard. It tears at the soul in a way that is worse than the denigration of obscenities — at least the person yelling recognizes our existence.