Back in the 1950’s a fixture on my parents’ bookshelf was “Emily Post’s Etiquette”. It was the definitive guide to everything involving manners or decorum. If you needed to know which knife or fork to use at a state banquet, or how to properly address an ambassador or a bishop, Emily was your source.
I am told that the book is still around, now into its 18th edition, and updated for the digital world by Emily’ s descendants, but somehow it seems to me that the world has become so incredibly complex that propounding rules of etiquette may no longer be possible. At the very least, a new set of rules is sorely needed.
What triggered these musings was a spat of obituary announcements that have shown up recently in my Facebook feed, and my consternation as to how to deal with them.
The first was the easiest, as it announced, not unexpectedly, the death of a very dear family friend, at the venerable age of 101. The announcement, via Facebook was tasteful, and welcomed, since those of us affected by the passing are scattered across the continent. There was no question that I would post a comment, but I baulked at clicking the “like” button as well. Surely one should not “like“ the announcement of someone’s death?
The next was a bit more difficult, a guy I had paddled with on an extended trip two summers ago, and a last-minute no-show for this year’s expedition. He passed suddenly, a day after our last Facebook exchange, bantering about the missed trip. He died with many friends and acquaintances, but little in the way of close family, certainly no-one that I knew. Not knowing the actual circumstances of his death I didn’t want to blunder in with an inappropriate comment, and certainly didn’t want to appear to be applauding his death with a big thumbs up. To whom was I paying my respects m and, would it be disrespectful to say nothing at all?
Then a business acquaintance posted an announcement of his father’s passing. I had met his father once, years ago, but didn’t feel that my tenuous connection to him made any type of comment appropriate, although I still wanted to reach out to the son. What to do? Barge in with a post, or simply “like” the announcement, or use a silly emoji to try to express myself.? Again, I find myself resistant to the idea of using an emoji to recoqnize someone’s death.
The last was more difficult yet, It was a local politician, whom I scarcely know, except via social media, and the odd political event. She was announcing, in somewhat coded language, the sudden and devastating loss of her son, whom I had never met. My suspicion, from the language of the post (later confirmed) was that the child had perished as a result of a drug overdose. How to respond, in order to comfort a very nice lady, using the limited tools in Facebook’s toolbox ?
It is, I suggest, past time for a new tome on etiquette, to help those of us who struggle with using social media in a respectful and caring manner. Perhaps Facebook needs to expand its repertoire of available responses, to include some which are a bit more formal than a contorted happy face. Or perhaps, we should just eschew social media entirely in such circumstances, and dust off our copy of Emily Post. Emily, I’m sure, would counsel a kind word, a handwritten note, and a comforting hug.