Have we lost our shame?

Stephanie Saville.
Stephanie Saville.

On Sunday [last week], the guy and I needed to get out of town. We’d had the stink of the dump fire in chunks, and you know how bad I am when confronted with a bad smell.

We had an errand to run in Howick and decided to head off into the nearby Midlands for a bite to eat.

Anyway, there we were sitting on the veranda of a restaurant we both love. The sun was shining, the air was clear and we were breathing sweet lungfuls of it.

The wine was cold and the ice blocks accompanying it of the most pleasing shape. The hills were lush, the birds were trilling sweetly and the food was good. Bliss!

Then, in walked a party of youngsters to take up the table next to us. It was an occasion of sorts. There was Champagne. Mom and dad left the kids to themselves and moved inside so the kids could enjoy their lunch unchaperoned, as it were.

Spirits were high and there was much banter. It all looked like such fun and we were happy to be seated next to them. We couldn’t help overhearing much of what was said, because we were right there, and they spoke in bright, animated tones, with an air of joie de vivre given their buoyant young spirits.

I gathered that they were mostly probably from private schools. They were well spoken and seemed well versed in ordering off a nice menu.

They chatted easily among themselves and in gaps in our conversation we heard what they were saying. The subject shifted around, meandering fluidly here and there as conversation does, until it landed, like a big fat fly, on a particular girl, whose name and surname were mentioned. Very loudly.

The girls at the table morphed from sweet darlings to nasty vixens picking their victim apart, as their male companions chipped in with disparaging comments and noises. I was floored.

The name of her school — a very good school in our city — was uttered with disdain. They were discussing her life in the most personal terms.

When they spoke about her, their tone indicated a bad smell. It was a vicious attack and I was completely blindsided by the venom of it.

There was no regard for the fact that we could obviously hear what they said. Perhaps they’d had too much of the two bottles of bubbly that sat at their table, so loose were their tongues. I think they were underage, so drinking did not agree with them perhaps. I felt sick for the poor girl whose name was being tossed about like a kitten among a bunch of bullies. I was nauseated by the obvious glee they had in doing so. Every time one of them got a jibe in I felt less like eating.

I couldn’t intervene. I felt it was not my fight. But there was steam coming out of my ears and at one point I turned around and looked at them and said: “Are you serious?”.

I know, I know. Childish, passive aggressive, call it what you will. I hoped this would make them realise others could hear them and they’d stop, but they took no notice of me. And I wondered what the genesis of this brazen cruelty was.

Where had they learned to speak like this, so openly and confidently, and without shame at their cutting words?

Of course, young girls and boys can be awful at times. Really awful. But in my day, we were awful in hushed tones, I think. We didn’t have society’s permission to be so nasty and so in-your-face with it and we certainly wouldn’t have been like that in earshot of adults who may disapprove.

Or have we taught our kids nowadays that nothing they do is beyond reproach? Have we made that parenting mistake, most of us in different measures? Or is it because they’re mimicking us adults?

I thought of Facebook and social media, and how it seems to unleash the worst unkindness in so many people. Spats between people are everywhere online and there are no holds barred in what becomes a deluge of poison unleashed on the day’s victim. People pick and pick and pick at a person like a child with a tempting, juicy scab.

This bullying and public shaming has become a national sport. It’s almost like a competition to see who can outdo the others in their level of acrimony and their unintelligent jibes.

Sexists, religious nuts, racists, everyday curmudgeons and the plain nasty — they all like being offended and love hitting back even more.

This happens even on the most innocuous of sites. I belong to a cookery group on Facebook which embraces a community of people who are learning to bake. People proudly post pictures of their amateur creations and far too often they and their offerings are mocked.

There is a scornful tone that I just can’t get used to. It is such anti-social behaviour. When did we learn to behave like this? Have we lost our shame at behaving badly in public? Is this where these girls learned this behaviour?

Perhaps we need to all work on our manners and kindness. Can we make it a point to teach this to our kids, to think before we speak? It’s especially important when you don’t know exactly what’s happening in the other person’s life. If one person thinks twice before they post something, the space I’ve used writing this will have been worth it.

Now go and be compassionate to each other this weekend and have a blast doing it.

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