But it could reconcile humanity to its differences.

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

“Good manners,” according to the very best definition of good manners, “is making people feel more comfortable.”

No matter how fraught the situation, using this particular, near-universal definition of good manners can improve it. It means everything from politely offering someone a chair, to refraining from using profanity in certain company, to not offending others with our table manners, and a hundred other things besides.

Good manners, like most other “soft skills” is a competency which can be taught, learned and practiced. Honing good manners is important because most of would like to avoid being unintentionally rude. With a clear definition of good manners, rudeness has an inverse and equally clear standard.

Being rude is making people feel more uncomfortable.

The concept of “good manners” has gone slightly out of fashion in the modern era, to be replaced with concepts unlikely to make anyone feel more comfortable like “tone policing” and “privilege”. This is unfortunate, because treating other people with respect is more important than ever- as we meet more of them and are often insulated from the effects of our rudeness by at least two computer screens.

By the standards of some, expecting people to act in mannerly way as not to make other people uncomfortable is considered a problematic attitude. These well-meaning crusaders for social justice should substitute the words “good manners” with “stopping micro aggressions” and read on.

What makes “good manners” problematic is the lack of clear cultural context.

What is considered very rude by some standards- arriving early for a party, for instance- is perfectly acceptable by other standards, whereas being late is not. Making people wait around is considered deeply rude by many people and in many cultures.

By other, equally popular, standards of rudeness and good manners, the opposite is true. Arriving early for a party would be the epitome of rudeness and expecting everyone to assemble promptly at a time of your choosing, equally rude.

The answer to navigating this landscape isn’t Emily Post, and it isn’t more censorship; it is cultural literacy.

Cultural literacy, something most of us have never heard of, is a powerful tool for the well-mannered person. Improving cultural literacy can improve one’s likelihood of choosing good manners in any given situation, rather than unintentional rudeness, wherever you go.

Cultural literacy is also a competency which can be taught. Multinational companies frequently have their executives study the concept.

The moment social media companies were launched- places where millions of people from all walks of like would interact daily- cultural literacy programs should have been launched in tandem.

After the novelty of Facebook wore off, most of us were left with the knowledge of who we probably should have been friends with in High School and little else. For this, we have been forced to painfully confront, really for the first time in history, how differently we all think.

Humankind is an idealogical spectrum of special, unique snowflakes. And there are so many of us.

Facebook has revealed how much we all think of our own opinions, which we are (or were) willing to share with every single person we know even slightly- and how little some of us think of the opinions of others. It has revealed intolerance, stereotypes, bigotry, cluelessness, and every other social faux pas kindled in the human spirit.

It has revealed our own intolerance for viewpoints which differ from our own. The definition of bigotry according to Merriam-Webster is: “Obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices.”

It has revealed things even darker than that. The problem isn’t the software, or the platform; it’s humanity. People were obviously going to make a mess of Facebook because people are a mess.

Facebook reminds us, sometimes painfully, that we share the world- as we always have- with those who don’t share our moral values system, level of education, socio-economic status or political beliefs.

Socializing on Facebook means potentially interacting with people who happen to think it’s flat, or that it was once inhabited by aliens who imparted advanced technology to ancient civilizations.

Trying to homogenize a group of human beings the size of Facebook into harmony and agreement is beyond the ability of any billionaire, no matter how determined. It’s hard to enforce correct opinions.

Facebook is not “one big happy family” and it never will be.

Trying to get all of us to think alike, and therefore agree, rather than helping us explore, understand and appreciate our differences is where Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and their ilk are going wrong.

The answer isn’t more censorship, or de-platforming, or better content moderation. That is a bandaid on a brain tumor. To treat the underlying cause, social media companies need to reinvent themselves as universities of cultural literacy and good manners.

Or universities of cultural literacy and stopping micro-aggressions before they start, whatever your preference.

The answer is, as it almost always is, better education. Social media platforms have the advantage of having the ultimate laboratory of millions of real people with every conceivable opinion about every topic imaginable. Think of it as immersive language learning.

In interacting with people who don’t think the way we do, we can practice the skills of cultural literacy and good manners.

Facebook, and Twitter, and every other social media platform where millions of disparate people interact billions of times a day, were bound to become places filled with disagreement, rudeness and people complaining about each other.

Of course social media became a toxic source of stress in the lives of millions; it is basically an offense slot machine. Pull the lever enough times, scroll long enough, something is sure to offend.

Facebook cannot enforce good manners, because there is no universal standard of good manners. By the same token, social media companies can’t stamp out anything which might make others uncomfortable.

Everything makes someone uncomfortable.

Eliminating offense from the platform would mean removing every single human user and leaving social media for the bots, who are physically incapable of being offended by anything.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)