Facebook Users Take Heed: A Nineteenth-Century Lesson in Online Etiquette

In 1959, one of my new favourite people, Erving Goffman, wrote the following, seemingly common-sensical passage:

“There is hardly a performance, in whatever area of life, which does not rely on the personal touch to exaggerate the uniqueness of the transactions between performer and audience. For example, we feel a slight disappointment when we hear a close friend, whose spontaneous gestures of warmth we felt were our own preserve, talk intimately with another of his friends (especially one whom we do not know).”

Goffman, Erving. 1990. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin. pp. 58-59.

However, it seems that this message is not translating itself in to much of the electronic communication which regular passes below my ever tiring gaze. All over Facebook, I am bombarded with posts on “walls” exclaiming, in various guises:

“You were ALL unbelievably WONDERFUL”

“Love you SO much”

“You are literally the best person in the world EVER”


Or status updates along the lines of:

“<insert name here> LOVES <insert name here> SO MUCH!”

And it isn’t just Facebook… this emotional incontinence [also manifested in the need people feel to electronically burst into tears over various issues, form the most trivial to the most heartwrenching] is creeping in to all forms of communication.

In and of itself, a bit of enthusiastic praise is one thing, and pretty damn nice to be honest. But constantly dishing our ludicrious expressions of joy, love and admiration on a daily basis surely serves to diminish their impact, remove any credibility people might attach to your sentiments, and ultimately lead to a society where people need constant emotional reinforcement whilst never being able to appreciate these sentiments in anything but a trivial, watered-down form, when truly merited.

Maybe I am just being a grumpy old man. Maybe I am behind the times. But seeing this passage in Goffman gave me the push to speak my mind. It seems that the authors of the following nineteenth-century American guide to manners might agree with me.  I hope you will too…

“If you have paid a compliment to one man, or have used toward him any expression of particular civility, you should not show the same conduct to any other person in his presence. For example, if a gentleman comes to your house and you tell him with warmth and interest that you ‘are glad to see him’, he will be pleased with the attention and will probably thank you; but if he hears you say the same thing to twenty other people, he will not only perceive that your courtesy was worth nothing, but he will feel some resentment at having been imposed on.”’

The Canons of Good Breeding: or the Handbook of the Man of Fashion (Philadelphia: Lee & Blanchard, 1839), p. 87.



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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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