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The rudest place on earth: Why are we so passive-aggressive online?


May Ashworth just ‘broke the internet’. But while we’re all quite used to viral sensations swamping our social media feeds - Kim Kardashian’s techniques of course, are often the most effective - Ashworth’s online virility is perhaps the most shocking yet.

What happened? If you’ve been suitably unplugged and missed it, 86-year-old Ashworth, from Wigan, wrote this straight into the Google search box: “Please translate these roman numerals mcmxcviii thank you.”

Her grandson shared it on Twitter, and the online world went into meltdown.

If you don’t get it, then bravo.

You’re officially one of the last unicorns; a rare breed of internet users who don’t see anything astounding in the use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ online. Or, perhaps you also didn’t realise that Google is powered by bots which, for the moment at least (machine learning is happening don’t forget), cannot respond to pleasantries.

Either way, applause, because it’s no secret that an incredibly large portion of online exchanges today are so cloaked in anger, frustration and passive indifference, that abrupt or borderline rude communications have become the base line.

Trolling of course is the all too common extreme, but even on the ‘friendlier’ side of digital comms, few of us are interacting in ways that are actually polite - let alone warm and friendly.

The Ps and Qs that are so essential to healthy face-to-face conversation - the social oil that makes our world go round - have seemingly failed to upload.

Take a scroll through your feeds. Twitter is largely used for scathing complaints, while Facebook comments regularly descend into frosty debate or a pushing of agendas.

Online pleasantries have become such a rarity that when they are used, it’s headline news.

Rude or Polite online interaction

"The niceties that are so essential to healthy face-to-face conversation have seemingly failed to upload"

A Stylist.co.uk poll (cast your vote below) has revealed that an overwhelming number of readers share the same view, with 93 per cent agreeing that the internet would likely be a far more welcoming place if good manners and better 'netiquette' were more prolific.

So here’s the question at the root of it all; why do we collectively conspire to chuck politeness, warmth and a general code of fair play out the window when it comes to our interactions online?


93 per cent of Stylist readers agree that the internet would be a far better place with good manners

Dr Gemma Lewis, Psychiatric Epidemiology Research Associate at University College London (UCL), believes it might have a lot to do with the absence of social cues that would normally force us to deliberate or adapt our behaviour.

“Internet use tends to be a solitary thing. So we may feel less socially exposed and less self-conscious than we would when standing among a group of people, or talking to another person face-to-face,” she explains. “We also have complete free reign to say as much (or as little) as we like, which we often don’t experience when standing in a group of people.

“When we aren’t interacting with someone face-to-face, we can’t use the normal social cues that might encourage empathy, or guide us into inhibiting hostile behaviour, such as facial expressions or body language.”

anonymous social media presence

"When we aren’t interacting with someone face-to-face, we can’t use the normal social cues that might encourage empathy"

The breadth of our online audience might also be a factor, adds Dr Lewis, the effect of which is compounded by feelings of anonymity.

“When socialising online we are, perhaps inadvertently, engaging with a much wider audience than we do in most face-to-face interactions,” she notes. “We are therefore more likely to encounter people we don’t know, don’t agree with or don’t like. This not only gives us a sense of anonymity, it puts us in touch with anonymous others too. This process of dehumanization might make us more likely to be rude.”

The buoying effect of a carefully curated online presence, and an urge to protect that enhanced presentation of ourselves, could also be fueling the abruptness.

“Think of it as a licensing effect: You feel good about yourself so you feel a sense of entitlement,” explains Keith Wilcox, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, and co-author of a study on the effect social networks have on our self-esteem and self-control.

“You want to protect that enhanced view, which might be why people are lashing out so strongly at others who don't share their opinions,” he says of the rapid-fire social media debates that are now so commonplace, they’ve even got their own Ron Burgundy-inspired meme.

Ron Burgundy That Escalated Quickly Meme

While a handful of us going guerilla and firing off pleasantries at unsuspecting followers might seem like inconsequential action, it’s actually not a bad place to start.

No, it may not bring about the sea-change with immediate effect, but if there’s one thing we’ve learnt from Ashworth, it’s that people the world-over really do appreciate the quintessential power of a ‘please’.

It’s time good old-fashioned manners started trending, and every one of us can give that a share.




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