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Stop behaving badly

[WHO] Ros Marsden, author of a book on manners.
[WHAT] Manners help people navigate life and are about kindness, not etiquette.
[HOW] Treat people as you'd like to be treated - and take the bloody phone off the table.

Courtesy ought not to be seen as optional - we owe it to each other. In a world where technology has created an explosion of communication, particularly through so-called social media, decency and respect are more important than ever.

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The Zone: Ros Marsden

Author Ros Marsden joins Michael Short in The Zone.

Yet so many seem ignorant of manners. Manners are rooted in the principle that you should treat others as you would like to be treated; they are about empathy.

Manners are not about being stuffy or formal. They differ from etiquette, which is a set of socially nuanced rules that can be disempowering and undermining because they create markers by which people might be unfairly judged. Manners are about kindness. Etiquette is often used unkindly.

Today's guest in The Zone has written a book to assist people, young people in particular, use manners to help navigate the modern world - F… Bombs! The Handy Manners Guide To Make Your Life Easier (Wilkinson Publishing).

Ros Marsden has had a long career in media, starting as a television researcher and producer. She is currently working at Fairfax Media, publisher of this newspaper and the national suite of sites and apps that carry The Zone, as communications manager for Australian Community Media.


A short video statement by Marsden and the full transcript of our discussion are at She will be online for an hour from midday to respond to questions and comments, which can be submitted from early this morning.

''Manners I see as essential for our enjoyment of society … I want to provide opportunities for young people to have useful data around them that may help them traverse life a lot more easily than they might be able to at the moment.''

One of the things that informed the book is Marsden's long experience with depression, which she suffered so profoundly that she was hospitalised. She says recovering from the illness is the hardest thing she has ever done and is something she is proud of.

''I now look at teenagers very differently. I look at them as remarkable people, because a lot of our insecurities start as teenagers, and a lot of our questioning of life and how we belong starts as a teenager …

''It all ties in for me; having gone through a great deal of personal trauma, I would like to think that I can encourage young people to deal with things a little more easily, in my own way.''

The lack of courtesy and decency on social media extend to abuse and bullying and can have terrible outcomes. The recent death by suicide of media figure and former model Charlotte Dawson after years of vicious online abuse, much of which was posted by anonymous people on her Twitter account, is a prominent example.

Anonymity is a fundamental issue. Behind avatars and pseudonyms, people allow themselves to publicly state things they would not say were they identifiable or were they face to face with the target of their abuse or nastiness.

There are good reasons for anonymity in places where people are using social media to fight dictatorial regimes, as was the case during the Arab Spring, when social media was pivotally important in public uprisings that brought fundamental political and social change in several nations including Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt. People were risking their lives, so needed the protection of anonymity.

That justification does not exist in Australia. ''Being anonymous is cowardly, because it is much easier to say things that are cruel or nasty when you don't have to put your name to it,'' Marsden says.

Being targeted online, anonymously or otherwise, can be deeply distressing - particularly for young people.

''When you're dealing with peers you're seeing the next day at school, it is very hard to then be brave enough to have an open discussion that could actually make it worse for you.

''You almost have to look at it as an individual thing of how you respond. You either ignore it, and that is not a bad way of going, or you try to talk to that person directly.

''But that can be very challenging when you're young and when you have got a lot of other factors with friendships going on. It depends on your experience and your age.''

Other experts on bullying stress the importance of seeking support from trusted friends and adults. It is also advised to block abusive people from your account and to report attacks.

Manners, Marsden says, can help young people withstand bastardry. ''Manners can help you tackle areas where you might need to be resilient - when you are faced with situations that are difficult or confronting. Manners give you an opportunity to step back and think about the best way to respond to the issues that you're facing.''

Some times the best way to respond is not to respond at all; Marsden says manners help her resist sending rash or potentially rude responses to annoying emails.

Another problem is that the term ''social media'' is an inadequate description of what is happening online. A better term is ''open media'', because communication conduits such as Twitter and Facebook are really publishing platforms.

The term ''social media'' can create a false sense of security; the same laws that apply to any publisher apply to anyone who uses these sites and applications. Anything posted on these public places is, for example, liable to action for defamation. They are subject, too, to sections of the Commonwealth Criminal Code that cover using the internet to make threats, cause offence or harass.

As recently as last week, a former student was ordered to pay $105,000 to a NSW school teacher for defaming her on Twitter and Facebook. The judge said the comments had a devastating effect on the teacher, who took sick leave and was only able to eventually return to work on a limited basis.

''By calling it open media you are really pinpointing it is public, and the same laws of the land do apply … There is a lack of understanding that you are liable for everything that you put anywhere - including online.''

Marsden's book, which uses simple, clear language and lots of photographs and graphics, covers far more than the internet. It has chapters on anger, dress, swearing, apologising, being discreet, obstinacy, lending and borrowing, vanity, jokes, greetings, shopping, cultural sensitivity and behaviour on public transport.

One of the things Marsden focuses on in our discussion is the lack of consideration people show in their use of telephones on public transport. ''On the train people are talking so loudly on their phone that I am hearing conversations I don't believe should even be aired in public. I have heard domestic arguments. I have heard real estate negotiations. I have heard people talking loudly about the company they are working for, without any knowledge of who else is in the carriage with them.''

[WHO] Ros Marsden, author of book on manners

The ill-mannered use of telephones extends beyond trains and trams. Like so many of us, Marsden finds it disconcerting and rude when people place their phones on the table during lunch and dinner, for example.

''It means that they are not interested in me. They may as well pick up a copy of the newspaper and put it in front of my face and we'll have our meal like that. Having dinner together is a fundamentally social event. Why do you have dinner together? It is to share conversation and to share ideas, to enjoy food, to enjoy good wine, to enjoy coffee.''

There is enlightened self-interest, too, in being well mannered. Marsden says it is imperative young people understand their online behaviour creates a revealing record that will be checked by potential employers and partners - and indeed can be seen by anyone.

''Those things are really vital to think about. That measurement of 'if my best friend or my grandmother saw it would I be OK with that' is a good one. You need to believe that what you're putting out in the public space you will be happy to see in 10 years' time or more.''

Manners are timeless. Marsden is not arguing things were necessarily better in her day and that the younger generations are clueless. Her entreaty, rather, is for all us to keep ourselves nice in an increasingly open and interconnected world where so much of what we do is visible and permanently archived in cyberspace.

Marsden stresses manners can help us deal with the bustling pace of modern life by creating space to reflect before acting. They are not rigid rules - they are about humanity and making people feel comfortable and valued.

''All of us want a satisfying life with some comfort and kindness around it. We all crave kindness.''

The Zone is about activism and advocacy. It seeks to bring fresh thoughts into the free market for ideas. It is collaborative, presenting arguments for moving from what is the case to what ought to be the case.



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