Monday, September 13, 2010

Finding the Grey

I was having a conversation online with a group of people recently when suddenly the tone turned from friendly to confused to angry.

The conversation crossed a line of civility in the mind of one person, but not in others. This resulted in an impasse.

This elicited the following question: “Can good manners hurt relationships? I just think that relaxing the rules sometimes is healthy. Is this ever a problem?” She added, “I think that the expectation of good manners leads to judging a person and then that leads to alienation. Just like when people were horrified when the guy wiped his fork on his napkin (a behaviour discussed during a previous conversation). I was grossed out too, but then in the end, it was judged as wrong so maybe he was looked at as lacking civility as a result.

Maybe I am confused. I should never think – not good for anyone.”

Another added, “Thinking is good; speaking what we are thinking, well not always good. Sometimes we need to sleep on it! Don’t beat yourself up. Think on it, then sleep on it!” The dynamic here is one in which the offender is relating a similar situation to her own. Her confusion is actually an admission of being hurtful without apologizing.

Of course it is uncivil to wipe your fork with your napkin, just as it is when rude language is used.I think her feelings of confusion may have been more likely of guilt. Furthermore, this scenario illustrates an example of what can happen when a little too much enthusiasm enters a conversation and the importance of being right or establishing the prevailing opinion becomes tantamount to the topic of the conversation itself.

In this case, the incivility took the form of coarse language and clearly caused a high level of discomfort in one person in the group. The confusion resulted from a lack of acknowledgement by the offending party that she had been hurtful, embarrassing and insulting.

This was followed by the two individuals going on the defensive. A battle of nasty exchanges ensued.

People in the group were horrified when a guy wiped his fork on his napkin.I was grossed out too.It was judged as wrong. He was looked at as lacking civility as a result.

We all have been a part of conversations that deteriorate into an unpleasantness no one wanted.

The answer to whether relaxed good manners is ever a problem is a resounding yes. There is never an occasion where relaxed good manners serves any good purpose. The reason is simple: There is intentional disrespect, perhaps subconscious, but nevertheless intentional, and therefore rude and hurtful.

This will almost always result in a complete shutdown or a raising of one’s hackles and a setting up of a battalion of defences.

Just like the guy who wipes his fork on his napkin, the person who insults someone else is in the wrong. And just as she was grossed out by his behaviour, so another person was hurt by her careless remarks.

These dynamics leading to a dismal end need to be recognized by both parties immediately and they need to become private. Once a derogatory remark is made – pointing out a particular bit of bad behaviour or expressing disagreement with what is being said – that remark cannot be retracted. There is rarely a good time to air one’s dirty laundry in a public forum.

The advice to“sleep on it”is sound and necessary. Thinking before speaking is paramount.

Fortunately there are peacemakers present during many of these unravelled conversations who can bring things back on an even keel and often take them to a calm conclusion. It is the responsibility of those having the dispute, however, to end its public venue.

This is easier said than done. Black and white needs to become grey. It becomes important to recognize that right and wrong are states of mind and neither party is likely to be all one or the other.

Once these conversations head south, a good infusion of compassion may be the only solution.

This isn’t going to happen readily without a cooling off period.

Time does bring with it a welcome wind of compassion, where apologies can be delivered and accepted with grace and honest intention.

If public discussions suddenly bring up bad feelings, take them private as quickly as possible. Insulting anyone in public is never acceptable as proper etiquette, which, when relaxed, is never healthy.