Speak now, or forever hold your peace

This is where happily ever after starts, right?

This is where happily ever after starts, right?

Oh dear. Now they’ve made it official. “We’re engaged!” The profile status update you knew would come, but dreaded. The drinks you had after work fuel you with urge to retort, your enabled mind feels for the right words:

“You’re screwed!”

Then you stop yourself. You doubt, very much, they’ll live happily ever after. But is it your place to comment? Is it bad manners to raise concerns about your friend’s relationship? When and how might you go about it?

It used to be that wedding announcements were printed in the paper after permissions had been sought from the protectors of the relevant parties. There was much formality, little autonomy and generally no room for public comment. Even at the ceremony, people rarely spoke now, preferring to forever hold their peace, the priest’s invitation to protest really a token gesture employed as the final covering of bases.

Not now.

Nowadays, we’ve many vehicles for comment. And we’re enabled by a new normal that encourages open, honest, peer-to-peer communication. We’re encouraged to ask personal questions and offer personal advice, even to people we hardly know, all the while bleeding our own intimate details out into the public sphere.

And there’s lots that is positive about this. It’s good we’re encouraged to share our feelings, and break-through the stiff-lipped constipation inherited from a history dominated by too-uptight social mores. Proper digestion of emotional issues does sometimes require a little bit of outside help, especially if you’re in a place where you really do need to be talking to someone.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

What we’re looking at is the problem that faces us on more fronts than it used to thanks to a culture of sharing and the communication devices that support it. We’re looking at the problem of having a problem with someone’s life choices and not knowing what to do about it.

Do you stay quiet or speak up? If they’ve aired their laundry, are you entitled to peg your opinions on the line as well?

Frankly, there’s a lot to be said for restraint. Regardless of whether your dilemma concerns someone’s relationship, job, or new baby name, it is always good to think before you speak. Think about why you want to speak (because they did? Or because you actually have something to say), and then decide whether it’s actually appropriate to say what’s on your mind. Too many times people just react. These people are uncivilised and lacking good manners.

And there are a lot of bad manners on Facebook, Twitter, and around the dinner tables of your town. Bad manners that would have someone commenting on someone else’s wedding announcement critically, or raising an oppositional view about a matter that couldn’t be changed at a social function (*note, you should only comment on a stain if something can be done to remove it).

Yet civilisation doesn’t work on silence.

Tongues need to be exercised sometimes. Sometimes, some things just need to be said. That you believe your mate might be making a mistake with their new girlfriend because of (insert considered reasoning) for example. Or that you’d like to attend the wedding but –

But. Well, that might just be pushing it a little. Because once someone has crossed the line of informality, into the realm of really serious commitment, you should recognise that you’ve missed the boat and the best you might do is stand on the shore, waving your hanky and possibly keeping it for later when they may come to you, really needing it, and your shoulder, to cry on.

Fact is, a lot of lines have been blurred in this brave, new, ‘social’, world, and the lack of clarity has brought about some very anti-social behaviours. That interactions with ‘friends’ is now possible from the privacy of your bedroom, via your mobile, after a few drinks, and not in real-time, has consequences. People say things they shouldn’t to people they shouldn’t, when they shouldn’t. It’s confused, and often rude, and can ruin relationships.

And it’s time to address it.

But let’s begin by focusing on the smaller issue here. Whether we agree commenting negatively about a friend’s major life decision, after they’ve decided to make it, is or isn’t ‘the done thing’, and why.

Have you ever talked a friend out of a major life decision like marriage? Have you attempted to, and been burned as a result? Have you held your tongue and regretted it later? Or do you think you should always speak your mind, no matter what, when, how or to whom?

This story Speak now, or forever hold your peace first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.