Manners is a modern word, yet it wields the power to invoke old-fashioned motifs and ideals: the kind of imagery you might see in a series or movie set in Victorian England. It might even be said to be a rather staid word; bland, nondescript, and easy to overlook. In fact, the words comprising skillful communication are, by their very nature, restrained and tender: affirming, humane, gentle, reflective, kind, humble, and respectful. By contrast, there is an entire lexicon of unskillful communication for the contemporary world of social media. The jargon contains rather more flamboyant and sharper terms: toxic, mocking, trash-talking, slamming, tearing a new one, roasting, dunking on, invalidating . . . the list can go on. The problem is not criticism per se, but the very loss of good faith conversation, which is a step beyond bad manners.
There are no doubt amazing benefits to online communication, such as connecting people from around the world in a way once thought impossible. From the early days of Skype to the dominance of Zoom during the pandemic, it is fair to say that our online lives are as much part of “real” life as anything physical. Yet this has also led to extreme polarization across diverse societies, in which everything, not only politics, has become a battleground, from the romantic choices of celebrities to the sexual orientation of fictional characters. The issue becomes simply the vehicle, an excuse for lashing out with violent communication, with rage and contempt. In fact, it has gotten worse. Take the popular online activity of sh*tposting, defined by Oxford Languages as: “The activity of posting deliberately provocative or off-topic comments on social media, typically in order to upset others or distract from the main conversation.” Rudeness is bad enough, but what if the source of hurtful communication is behaving cynically and is not serious about addressing problems at hand?
Good manners, and Right Speech as a critical component of the spiritual life, as expressed in the Noble Eightfold Path, is much more than just communicating diplomatically. It is an extension of how we see the other person across the table, across the country, or across the world. As Paula Marantz Cohen writes in an article about Jane Austen’s vision of good manners: “The word ‘manners’ sounds prissy and old-fashioned to contemporary ears. But Austen presents it as the need to treat others humanely rather than instrumentally. It is the outward, formal expression of respect for others—whether one knows them well, slightly, or not at all.” (The Wall Street Journal)
At the heart of skillful, non-violent, kind, and productive communication is humanity and empathy. This requires the meditative (or at least, self-reflective) quality of non-reflexive reaction, which leads to considered and measured responses. The core of skillful communication also requires a respect and, perhaps, even apprehension for the power of words. Words can mislead, gaslight, wound, inflame, and confuse. As BDG contributor Sensei Alex Kakuyo, wrote recently: “. . . it seems reasonable to encourage people to use words responsibly. After all, they may not be able to cause physical harm, but words can certainly inflict emotional and psychological damage. They can bond people together or tear societies apart.”
It seems to follow that the very real power of the Internet, instant messaging, and social media to hurt, damage, and traumatize is not simply due to a global decline in manners. It seems like an age ago, but in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Internet was excitedly spoken of as the “information superhighway” that would lead to mass enlightenment and a better-informed populace. But there also came a Balkanization of realities, the establishment of echo chambers, and an increasing volume of fake news and misinformation, weaponized and monetized by social media platforms. Perhaps this “horizontal levelling” also applies to the lightning-fast exchange of communication by billions of people across billions of screens. We might be seeing a “cheapening” of discourse and an increasing carelessness with words that was not obvious before. When one is careless, it is easier to break something.
Despite widespread illiteracy, our ancient forebearers understood language to be sacred. While we no longer have shamans and high priests to mediate a community’s discourse, there is a growing sense that reclaiming language as something with real power to lift up or tear down is vital. From one extreme of social media to another, there is perhaps no arena in which language matters more than in a court of law, where one word can be scrutinized for months and a single sentence for longer. Steven Lachman, a judge on the Centre County Magisterial District in Pennsylvania, offered a lawyer’s perspective on Right Speech in an article published by the journal of the American Bar Association. In his analysis of Right Speech, Lachman deployed several terms that perhaps offer a glimpse into how skillful communication reflects one’s interior being:
Right speech enlightens. Most of our lectures to criminal defendants fall on deaf ears, but every once in a while, we plant a seed that grows into something wonderful [emphases ours]—aspire to that. Our speech gives the listener a window into our soul. Demeaning people before the court reveals arrogance. Blathering on reflects under-confidence and a lack of deliberation. Compassionate, deliberate speech paints the justice system as fair to all. Right speech is honest and economical—particularly in court opinions.(ABA Journal)
What can we learn from a judge’s understanding of Right Speech? First, the effects of communication are not always immediate—they can be a seed that can grow into something beautiful. There is a temporal element to communication that stretches beyond the initial verbal or written exchange. So just as we have heard of people “stewing” in indignation or hurt at a casual insult or dismissive comment, we have the power to send reverberations of warmth, encouragement, and validation through someone’s very core long after our encounter, online or offline.
We also have a unique opportunity to show someone “a window into our soul”—an honest attempt at caring about and understanding others will give them a clear view of our humanity, encouraging reciprocity and mirroring. Bad faith conversation, from cynical speech or anti-social behavior to so-called sh*tposting online, clouds the window to our true selves, preventing others from seeing that we, like all other beings, need affirming, positive attention and care.
Finally, Judge Lachman identifies the respective causes of two aspects of unskillful speech: demeaning others is the result of arrogance, while extended, unnecessary chatter is the cause of a lack of decisiveness and even insecurity. It might not be a common opinion, but the words we use are intimately connected to our personalities and our personal shortcomings.
Sadly, much of modern communication de-emphasizes a more careful approach to deploying language. However, there remains in most mainstream social circles, both offline and online, that what comes out of our mouths reflects our character. This still aligns with not just what Jane Austen believed, but what spiritual teachers have been saying for hundreds of years. Reclaiming language as an extension of our personhood—and identifying the sources and causes of violent, toxic, and generally unskillful communication—is no easy feat and to some degree puts the burden of responsibility on the individual. There is a separate, gargantuan conversation about the systemic issues in civic society that have led us to this point. For now, however, we can at least plant a few goods seeds ourselves.
Jane Austen Knows That Manners Make the Man (The Wall Street Journal)
Zen principles provide valuable lessons for judges (ABA Journal)