Social Graces 101: Respectfulness in Conversation

iStock_000006922543SmallFrom an Etiquette book on the topic  the art of Conversation (1875)

1. Even if convinced that your opponent is utterly wrong, yield gracefully, decline further discussion, or dexterously turn the conversation, but do not obstinately defend your own opinion until you become angry…Many there are who, giving their opinion, not as an opinion but as a law….

2. In a general conversation, never speak when another person is speaking, and never try by raising your own voice to drown that of another. Never assume an air of haughtiness, or speak in a dictatorial manner; let your conversation be always amiable and frank, free from every affectation.

3. In a dispute, if you cannot reconcile the parties, withdraw from them. You will surely make one enemy, perhaps two, by taking either side, in an argument when the speakers have lost their temper.

4. Never, during a general conversation, endeavor to concentrate the attention wholly upon yourself. It is quite as rude to enter into conversation with one of a group, and endeavor to draw him out of the circle of general conversation to talk with you alone.

5. A man (or woman) of real intelligence and cultivated mind is generally modest. He may feel when in everyday society, that in intellectual acquirements he is above those around him; but he will not seek to make his companions feel their inferiority, nor try to display this advantage over them. He will discuss with frank simplicity the topics started by others, and endeavor to avoid starting such as they will not feel inclined to discuss. All that he says will be marked by politeness and deference to the feelings and opinions of others.

6. It is as great an accomplishment to listen with an air of interest and attention, as it is to speak well. To be a good listener is as indispensable as to be a good talker, and it is in the character of listener that you can most readily detect the man who is accustomed to good society.

7. Make your own share in conversation as modest and brief as is consistent with the subject under consideration, and avoid long speeches and tedious stories.

8. If you find you are becoming angry in a conversation, either turn to another subject or keep silence. You may utter, in the heat of passion, words which you would never use in a calmer moment, and which you would bitterly repent when they were once said.


I find it interesting  that  over a hundred and thirty years later, these pieces of advice still ring true.  From my observation and participation in some of the posts on this website and on other blogs, I find it increasingly disturbing of how the ability or willingness to engage in respectful conversation is quickly eroding and how people have no problem with verbally abusing and mistreating one another  in the name of the “freedom of speech”, “keeping it real”, or “just sayin”. Social media has made it way too easy for people to engage in disrespectful behavior while hiding behind a screen name and a keyboard,  saying things they would not dare say face to face. It is despicable and it needs to stop though I doubt it will sadly.

The book I quoted above contained over 35 tips on how to engage in meaningful dialogue. The common theme I noticed throughout the list was holding people accountable  for their conduct towards others in conversation. They were discouraged from boasting, talking down to people, shaming, isolating, mocking, ridiculing  or ganging up on people they did not agree with. They were expected to treat people with courtesy, respect, and consideration and to diffuse conflict to keep the atomosphere light, a far cry from what we have today where boasting, talking down to people, shaming, isolating, mocking, ridiculing  or ganging up on people we do not agree with is the norm and socially acceptable online and off. Then to add insult to injury we “gaslight” the offended person we have insulted  by telling them that  they are overreacting to an insult and that they just cannot handle engaging in adult conversation with opposing viewpoints. People with common sense are not stupid and know the difference between a bit of biting sarcasm (snarky) and flat out insult to their intelligence or character. It is just easier to blame them than to take responsibility for our words and actions.

In a recent post on this blog, a commenter in response to another commenter’s condescending tone towards another  posed the question that if this were their boss would they be so disrespectful. One of the moderators answered that of course not but the conversation was not on “that level” more like girlfriends sitting around having drinks and shooting the  you know what. I have close friends I have known for over 20 years and a casual atomosphere never gives me the green light to say what I like and there is no blaming it on the ah-ah-ah-alcohol! I still have to censor what I say or face the consequences.  So is that what it has come to? because there are no consequences (like getting fired from a job or denied an audition/business opportunity) we can say whatever we like to people as long as profanity is not involved? We do not have to be respectful, kind and considerate to others? So “LazyDaisy15” can freely call  “starchildcosmic”  stupid or allude to that because she was misunderstood? “Missinfo25″can join the conversation and gang up on others involved? We can call the owner of the blog  the b word and tell her  that what she writes or supports is stupid and so on? And should someone call us on it we resort to “rolling our eyes” in defiance.

Perhaps part of the reason why these rules were effective in the 19th century is because these people had to do business with each other and interact with each others families on a regular basis face to face and to mistreat people in those circles would be reputation suicide cutting them off financially and socially where as today  the repercussions for such behavior is not punitive because you are saying it in your underwear behind a computer screen and a fake name  so it “doesn’t count” right? Right… I know that on twitter people have been “outed” for saying foolish things and they shut down their accounts to avoid blowback but for the most part, it is very easy  to take cheap shots at someone elses’ expense on line anonymously when there will be no penalty or consequences for your behavior.

My post is not to imply that we must become “yes man” clones and never have a difference of opinion, our life experiences shape our perceptions and fuel our arguments on any given subject. I find it disturbing that people have to be so nasty to each other and even more disturbing they and others who agree with them see NOTHING wrong with it. There is a way to talk to people with common sense and maturity and if the dialogue is too intense, silence is golden! If I say “cooking your husband his favorite meal is a great way to show love”, one person seeing her mom do that and her father  cheated and ran  around on her may balk at such a notion while another whose mom and dad gave lovingly to each other may endorse that notion.  We do not know fully what motivates peoples reactions to certain things, so we have to give them the benefit of the doubt respectfully even if we disagree in many cases. We are never going to agree on everything, that is a given and it is fine and while we have the right to disagree and have our own opinion, it is not license to belittle, insult or attack others who fail to agree with us or see it OUR way and vice versa.

We must  remember that there are  people “watching” how we treat each other on this website. Not everyone who reads these posts responds and gives input but they are paying attention to our behavior towards each other and while we are busy “keeping it real” and “just saying” despite the fact they do not know our real name does not mean we have no responsibility  for what we say and how we say it. I have read other blogs and  saw how well or poorly some of the commenters treated each other and that affected if I contributed or not, especially when they liked to “turn on others” who did not fall in line. I found it disturbing and in poor taste.

I have greatly benefited from the wisdom of others who did not agree with me and they have many times given perspectives I have never considered that made me see it from a different perspective. I also found great encouragement in support from those who did appreciate what I have to say, but I try my best to remember that no one likes their thoughts and opinions spit on or attacked, they want their input  valued and respected even if all do not agree with them and even if they are as wrong as the day is long, we still have a moral obligation to treat them respect like we would want to be and to remember that it is an opinion, that is it. Conversations should be an opportunity for  growth and understanding, we can always learn from others (I have a 14 year old student who has wisdom I do not see in grown men and women!) and  they can learn from us if we take the time to LISTEN as much as or more than we speak. If we find that there is no common ground, or the person we are dialoguing with will not listen to reason, there is no crime in walking away if there is no resolution to be had, respectfully choosing to agree to disagree.

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