The Compleat Guide to Facebook Gentility

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

I once read that the Age of Gentility ended with the close of WWI. Social historians note that the increasing effect of commerce and commercialism forever changed manners and expectations. I have an extensive collection of bound Godey magazines, Petersons, The Lady’s Book and Grahams— mostly from the Civil War era to the 1870s. It’s fun to thumb through and read the prescriptive advice on how a lady was to comport herself. We laugh at some of the strictures of the day, such as the excerpt from Thornwell’s Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility claiming undue pretensions of learning. “. . . whether your pretensions to learning are well founded or not; the simple fact that you aim to appear learned, that you deal much in allusion to the classics, or the various departments of science, with an evident intention to display your familiarity with them, will be more intolerable than absolute ignorance.”

It may make us laugh today but gentle manners made for civil discourse.dreamstime_xs_17334282 If gentle manners didn’t fade with the Age of Gentility, however, Facebook may well toll their death knell.

A writing friend recently voiced her frustration with a lack of online manners. She had posted an innocent informational article on her Facebook page about a trend in the publishing industry. It attracted a number of writers who reacted strongly. The comments became positively vitriolic with two camps developing and plenty of ad hominem attacks peppered in. These were well-known writers in the community and, as she pointed out, the ugliness took place in clear view of their readers.

Social media gurus would hail that as a complete success. Nothing like a little snakiness, controversy and pot-stirring to get the metrics up. But don’t we lose something in the mix?

I believe it is possible to discuss and to disagree with complete gentility. I relish a rousing discussion and we’ve had many here in our blog community but I  could count on one hand (and have fingers left over) the number of times a discussion got ugly here. Why is that? I like to think the age of gentility is alive and well here in our Books & Such blog community.

It’s not so different when commenting on Facebook. I think we need to adhere to a number of unwritten rules:

  • We always address ideas without resorting to ad hominem attacks. We don’t have to attack the person offering the opinion.
  • We keep in mind that when we take part in a debate sparked by someone’s status update, we’re posting our comments to that persons’ page.
  • We’re wordsmiths. We need to use words and ideas that will edify and add to the body of knowledge.
  • We understand that Facebook is a public forum. Our posts are read by industry professionals, colleagues, readers, our kids’ friends and probably our childhood Sunday school teacher.
  • We are aware that when we comment on other authors, publishers or agents, they most likely have alerts that will bring our comments right into their email. Our frankness may come at a cost.

Remember, there is nothing so appealing as someone who is gentle, even when positing a controversial opinion.

Regardless of the medium, good manners will never go out of style. It was some 2000 years ago that the apostle Paul wrote the following advice to his friends: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

So chime in. Am I as outdated as my old Godey magazines? Do we communicate so differently these days that the etiquette book has been completely rewritten? Can we have a rousing debate and still practice gentility? Give us some examples. I look forward to your take on this.


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What’s wrong with a rousing, heated discussion on Facebook? Click to Tweet



69 Responses

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  1. Bravo! Thank you for addressing this.

    Good manners are the cornerstone for a civilized society…but I’m not sure that we’ve ever really had a civilized society. Looking at the transcripts of public discourse in our government, say in the 19th century, one is stuck by the outright viciousness of tone, alternating with thinly veiled contempt.

    Homage has been paid there, either directly or at a distance, and I’m afraid that seed has sprouted. We saw our betters ‘getting away with it’, and now…don’t we do the same?

    How many of us have a small but undeniable visceral thrill at an elegant insult delivered by a character on “Downton Abbey”?

    How many of us have watched “The Apprentice”or “Hell’s Kitchen” and have enjoyed the “in-your-face” antics of the principals?

    As Pogo said (remember Walt Kelly’s comic strip?) – “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

    And it is a dangerous road we’re on, because with contempt (for what else is discourtesy?) comes dehumanization.

    It’s up to all of us, to set an example. To be courteous in word and intent on social media, and in any contacts we have in the real world. Hidden snarkiness is not allowed – to put it bluntly, it’s a manifestation of the sin of pride.

    I hope, Wendy, that your post today gets wide readership. It’s needed.

    • Psychotic judges are the reason I don’t watch any kind of “talent” show. And I use that word loosely…

      The people who go on there and audition believe they have something to offer. I hate seeing them crushed.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Andrew, your comments are spot on. I love the way you acknowledge that an “elegant insult” is just as insidious as a vicious attack. We tend to enjoy the snarky, the cynical and forgive them because of their cleverness but to the person at which they are aimed, they still injure.

      “Contempt becomes dehumanization.” Yes!

      “Hidden snarkiness is. . .to put it bluntly, it’s a manifestation of the sin of pride.” Preach it, brother.

    • How many of us have a small but undeniable visceral thrill at an elegant insult delivered by a character on “Downton Abbey”?

      Do you remember William F. Buckley Jr.? That man was the king of elegant insults.

      • I remember him. He was funny – but I was always a bit uncomfortable at that side of his work.

        There are times when a reproach is needed – but never an insult. It only gives the person who delivers it a small gleam of evil pleasure, and is what C.S. Lewis called a ‘turning’ of the soul – away from God.

  2. Wendy, This isn’t confined to Facebook and blogs. In this electronic age, when newspapers have online versions, comments can deteriorate into ad hominem attacks. I’ll confess that I’ve sometimes weighed in on these, but in most instances the character of the comments makes me agree with the old dictum, “I refuse to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent.”
    No, you’re not old-fashioned. I wish more people would subscribe to the gentility theory. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I’m with Andrew … Bravo! A few years ago, I met some people at a wedding that weren’t from Texas. Sweet folks. They called me a “real” Southern Belle and loved the way that my girls said, “Yes, Mam” or “May I be excused?” They said they didn’t hear that anymore. Made me smile and because they were a younger couple and may have children today … maybe they are teaching their children those good habits now. Good manners, respect … they are contagious. And I know debating can be done respectfully, as well as agreeing to disagree … But I don’t mind admitting that is still hurts my heart … makes my blood pressure rise a bit. Ha!

    Debates on Facebook … I steer clear of. My blood pressure is rising just mentioning it. Grin.

    Hope you don’t mind, but I have an article out on Dayspring’s (in)courage website today … such a blessing for me! Here is the site, if any of you get a chance to take a peek –

    Blessed by you.

  4. I admit, I’ve had the occasional opportunity, and temptation, to unleash the hounds and let someone have it, and that someone would have totally deserved a dressing down…but this is 2014. ANYTHING that is let loose on the internet is permanent.
    As in, forever available to shame you and your family for generations to come.

    (*Unless it’s between me and my brother, Kevin Zarifeh, on Facebook. Gloves are off, all the time. But we’re so ridiculous, no one has ever said they’ve learned anything from watching 2 grown-ups act like children.)

    There is the proprietary nature of one’s own blog, and even though there is a more formal mood to a blog, those words are still there for all the world to see.
    How do I know this? (And so begins the passive bragging, yet bragging it is, nonetheless…)

    Okay, so, I was going through the buffet line at a restaurant this past June, I did something to make myself laugh then I said out loud “That’ll make the blog!”
    The woman next to me said “Oh, you have a blog?”
    We chatted a bit and the next thing I knew, she says “Ohhhh, I’ve heard of you!”

    Holy flaming marshmallows!! I was on a cruise ship, in Greece, and this posh gal had heard of ME??? Bahahaha!!

    Uh oh.



    Then that ‘life flashing before my eyes’ thing happened, only it was ‘stupid things I’ve said’ flashed in Technicolor and trumpets and I sorta blushed.

    “Ohhhhh, realllly?”


    Let’s just say I was filled with joy and abject trepidation as I walked back to where I joined my mom, and told her everything.
    And then I got the one eyebrow grin. You know the one? The one where your Mother KNOWS. SHE. WAS. RIGHT. ALL. ALONG.

    Be polite, because somewhere, someone knows you, and they are armed.

    And if they ain’t yer Mama, they’re your big brother. 😉

  5. Norma Horton says:

    May I offer a link to my most popular blog post ever, “Do Only Twits Tweet?” Pretty well sums up my thoughts, and quite a few people agreed.

    Thanks for covering this important target in a blog, Wendy.

  6. Great blog, Wendy. I’m all for gentility in our words and the way we speak with others. Yes, we should be able to state our opinions, but couldn’t we do it in a way that doesn’t denigrate another?

    I do not engage in debates on FB. At least, not knowingly. 🙂 They usually bring out the ugly in people. And most of the time, they are people I hardly know anyway. My mama taught me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” Nice doesn’t have to be vanilla, but it can be a truth spoken in love, a gentle way of disagreeing. It doesn’t have to be hot sauce thrown in the face.

    I’m not always successful, but I try to live by the verse that talks about letting my speech always be seasoned with grace, seasoned as it were with with salt so that I can know how to respond to each person.

    Thanks for addressing this topic, Wendy. Well done and much needed.

  7. Sarah Thomas says:

    Hurrah! Manners will NEVER go out of style. I learned in my newspaper days that when someone attacks you in print the WORST thing you can do is enter the fray. I’ve found that when I express my opinions aggressively or with anger I’m not likely to win anyone over. I’m with you, Wendy, gentleness is the way to go. (I do think you can be gentle and strong at the same time.)

    Philippians 4:5 – Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.

    • Anger is only good for housecleaning, mowing the lawn and pounding nails. Anything else, and it’s exactly like you said, we’re not likely to win anyone over.

      • Anger – righteous anger – can serve other purposes as well. The feeling that one will not let a situation stand as it is can boil the blood, and lead to effective – and, when necessary, violent – action.

        Courtesy and effective action are not mutually exclusive. Consider “Hagakure” the book by Yamamoto Tsusenori that became the basis for Bushido.

        A Samurai was enjoined to be hot-blooded, but never hot-headed. I have remembered this, and tried to live it.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Perfect verse, Sarah. Those who exhibit gentleness and kindness are a balm to us all.

  8. So glad you spoke to this today, Wendy. I agree totally with everything you said!

    Taking the high road isn’t always easy, but it certainly leaves a better taste in my mouth than the alternative.

  9. It’s even more than just having good manners. For me, and I suspect many others here, it’s about loving people as Jesus would. Did Jesus agree with people all the time? Heck no! But he stood for what he believed in in exactly the right way: sometimes with fervor, sometimes with gentle peace. I think we can follow that example. Of course we won’t always get it right like he did, but we can sure try. 🙂

  10. What a treasure you have in that magazine collection, Wendy! Love, love, LOVE this post. It grieves me to see people so vicious, including Christians. “Good manners will never go out of style.” Amen, sister!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I wonder why we feel we have to adamantly and sometimes viciously defend our ideas?

      • Probably because we feel that our ideas define us, and that when if they’re undermined we lose a bit of ourselves.

        Pity, because we’re defined – absolutely – by Christ’s death and resurrection. Our value is set in stone with that “three days that shook the world”, and we can add nothing to our value by our own efforts.

  11. Leah Good says:

    Such a good post, thank you. It’s so important to be able to disagree and debate with grace. I’m part of an online community (that I love) where people have become afraid to even mention controversial issues for fear of flame-wars. Since when can we not discuss controversial issues without hurting feelings resorting to mean words? Christian’s should know better.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Sounds like your community needs to intentionally practice. Wouldn’t it be fun to pick a controversial subject with everyone agreeing in advance to stick to a set of ground rules? And then afterward analyze the outcome. If the group is not too big, it could be a real challenge– even the critiquing of the process afterward. Can we give feedback gently and lovingly and can participants take it without getting defensive?

  12. Going back to Richard’s comment about the online comments on news articles–I believe society will soon be reversing some of the social media options because it is so poisonous at times. Specifically, I was reading an article about a young girl who passed away last week from complications from the flu. She had written a letter (before getting sick) to her future self because she was just that kind of creative girl. In it, being a Believer, she asked her future self if she was following God and really living for Him? “If not, you should be.”

    A commenter turned this into a message about how the girl didn’t really believe deep down, knew she would stray, and was guilting herself. The discussion degenerated quickly from there.

    I pray her parents never see that thread, as what they would treasure as a young girl rooted in her faith and wanting to make sure she always would be was hideously morphed into the very opposite message.

    It really stuck with me. I predict that manners will make a comeback soon. Either that or we will turn into a ranting mass of humanity in a world where angry people willing to shoot someone over texting in a movie theater becomes common place.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I agree completely, Christina. I think news outlets would be wise to disable comments on all but opinion pieces. The people who tend to comment make the readership of the news organization look positively cringeworthy.

  13. “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12: 34)

    Going through the motions of civility cannot hide what is in the heart. Speaking gently is so much more important than just taking care not to offend someone. How we speak (and write) reveals much more than our wit or lack thereof. It reveals Who is in our heart.

  14. Absolutely, 100%, I couldn’t agree more! As a culture we’ve lost our boundaries. Social media, “reality” shows, technology—gone. And it shapes our personalities. Then it carries over to friendships, parenting, spousing, and on and on. Then it becomes the cloth itself. We’d better look out.

    I’m so stunned when a teen opens a door for me, I reinforce the heck out of him or her with a huge smile and “thank you.”

    I ready “Rules of Civility” and found it to be a nasty story of lack of boundaries: lack of respect for self, others, and God. Oh, please, can we try to be nicer to each other!

    Guess you hit one of my buttons.

  15. Thank you for posting this! I’m often disturbed at the rudeness I see online. It’s important to remember to respect others’ opinions, their right to post, and their Facebook profiles.

  16. This post reminds me of a song that I really appreciate by Hawk Nelson.
    “Words can build us up
    Words can break us down
    Start a fire in our hearts or
    Put it out”

    Those of us who write fell in love with words. The desire to pass that infatuation along to others is intense. I want to use winsome words that bring healing, because how I conduct myself will be remembered in the legacy I leave.

  17. I have to agree that there’s a lot of rudeness around, but there are also lots of nice people being kind and helping others and I prefer to focus on the positive. Of course if there’s no conflict there’s no plot. 😉

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I’m with you– I usually focus on the positive– but remember in the day when we weren’t supposed to tell our kids what they were doing was wrong? We were supposed to watch for them doing good and reinforce that? Yeah. I keep wondering, how did that work out?

      Sometimes I think it is just plain easier to say “stop it!”

      I’ve always liked a quote from The Tick: “Yes, evil comes in many forms, whether it be a man-eating cow or Joseph Stalin, but you can’t let the package hide the pudding! Evil is just plain bad! You don’t cotton to it. You gotta smack it on the nose with the rolled-up newspaper of goodness! Bad dog! Bad dog!”

  18. Excellent post, Wendy. I couldn’t agree more. Being rude online is so much easier than being rude face-to-face. But one thing I’ve noticed as a mom is that many of the next generation lack any form of self-control. They say whatever comes to their minds and believe if they say, “No offense,” then it’s fine. It’s not. We all need to filter the thoughts that travel down to our mouths before sharing them. Open a Word document and say all the nasty things you want to get them off your chest, so you don’t feel the need to blast someone in such a public manner.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Exactly, Cheryl. Being rude online is much easier than being rude face-to-face.

      And yes, our kids desperately need to be taught to filter. Actually the need to filter extends to all generations.

  19. Lauren Huss says:

    Brava Wendy!!!
    I firmly agree, and have actually written on this topic a few times myself. In fact I have an idea for a series of books to address a return of civility in our culture. Unfortunately, FB only perpetuates an ongoing trend of disrespect. With the common excuse that we are “keeping it real” we give ourselves permission to be crass, rude and just plain mean. No thought goes toward the person those words are crushing and humiliating. This is a tragic downward spiral that affects all areas of our culture. Thank you for addressing this in such an eloquent manner! I always enjoy reading this blog!

    • The sad thing is that ‘keeping it real’ is often only real in the moment.

      Something I try to do is this – ask myself whether what I am going to say will benefit the other person, or is it merely for my own benefit, either as a way of venting anger, or a way to show my superiority.

      For what it’s worth – it’s one way to keep a marriage ‘real’ – in the spirit of its role as a sacrament.

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        Good reminder, Andrew. I know the most important characteristic of a good marriage is often simply, being kind to each other.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      When my children were young we had a wonderful, practical set of how-to books on subjects like How to Clean Your Room. I remember my daughter with the book open, following the directions carefully. There were books on how to speak to grown-ups, how to write letters, etc. They were from Living Skills Press. The ones on comportment broke things down and made it easy to understand.

      I don’t know what kind of books you are thinking of, but it is sure a need– perhaps not a FELT need, but a need indeed.

  20. Amen. Well said.
    Facebook (and other electronic communication) is a horrible way to conduct conflict. There is no immediacy. There are no facial expressions (besides emoticons) to soften the tone. There is a complete lack of immediate clarification, thus avoiding needless ill will.

    Never do conflict electronically, IMHO.

    The trolls who inhabit the comment sections of the local papers will always have something nasty and incorrect to say. In this age, the Internet offers a giant megaphone to the grumpy curmudgeons of society.

    I try to leave my social media venues a better place than I found them. Maybe, if more of us lifted up, the digital world would be a better place.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      “In this age, the Internet offers a giant megaphone to the grumpy curmudgeons of society.” May I shout out a resounding “amen!” from the back pew, Pastor Bill?

      I love this: “I try to leave my social media venues a better place than I found them.”

  21. . . . sometimes we just need to be reminded – where good manners came from in the 1st place.

    You know, I always thought that if “Good Manners” was my middle name, maybe I would be more polite to people on-line and off-line.

    OMG — Did I refer to real life as being off-line? Please – please, forgive me.

    Donnie Good Manners Nelson

  22. Alda Dyal Chand says:

    I’m grateful that so many folks agree that being gentle causes a peaceful reaction. Both males and females could benefit from showing respect to others.
    Watching students from middle school and high school go in an out of group homes and lie, cheat, and bully makes me think we have failed.
    Thanks for the encouragement and hope for the future.

  23. Alice Stone Thomas says:

    Thank you, Wendy! With your permission, I would like to print your post and distribute it to my high school and college students. It is excellent advice for them to follow, not only in their social media participation, but in writing their argumentative essays.

  24. My boys and I have referred to these comments as “The Haters.” I think that sums up how we feel about these kinds of comments. 🙂

  25. Reba Staley says:

    Sorry I am late on responding to this post, but thank you for writing it.
    Seems like manners along with the ability to disagree without hating is fading fast.
    Thanks for your post and reminder.