Don’t Say Anything!

Foot-in-mouth syndrome is a curious ailment. It goes viral very quickly, but its effect on others is usually mirth with the occasional side effect of moderately painful wincing. It seems so widespread sometimes you’d reasonably conclude it’s contagious — but it infects others with an entirely different sickness, schadenfreude.

The dreaded FiMS serves as a cautionary lesson. You’re safe from its ravages if you take precautions like pausing before you speak, or at least asking if you’re being recorded. Think of it as using a condom for your tongue.

Whether or not you actually mean the regrettable things you say, it’s never been easy to regain your balance once you’ve done so. And heaven forbid too, for the billings of the crisis management industry. But it used to be people worried more about what they put in writing and less about spoken indiscretions. “The old way of thinking was that speech evaporates, while the written word was lasting,” Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute was quoted by Jeffrey Zaslow in the Wall Street Journal. “What has emerged is a culture in which the written word can be revised [online], while on YouTube speech lives on.” []

Clumsy phrasing may lie behind some gaffes, such as Carl-Henric Svanberg’s “we care about the small people” remark. The BP chairman is from Sweden after all. Deeply held (and usually politely sublimated) beliefs may drive others, for instance Mel Gibson’s rants about minorities, Jews, and women that spew out when he’s sauced. [To see how entertaining people find mellifluous Mel’s recent phone meltdown with his erstwhile girlfriend, see this round-up of re-mixes and mash-ups:]

In the humiliation-as-entertainment culture of TMZ and rapidly partisan politics, compassion for our fellow fools is understandably on the decline. A recent University of Michigan study (cited by the Journal) found that college students’ empathy has plunged 40% in the last 20 years. The villain of the piece may ironically be the same technology that seeks to bind us together, for “social” media reduces the need empathy-building face-to-face transactions.

You may be fortunate enough not to have your private affairs shared in public, but make no mistake: no one is immune in the Internet age. All politics may be local as the saying goes, but stupidity is increasingly global.

Ever innovative, the Internet is also busy offering solutions. For instance, the website gives users a forum to apologize for things they’ve said to people no longer around to hear it directly.

But perhaps the best advice remains that of 1950s humorist Sam Levenson: “It’s so simple to be wise. Just think of something stupid to say and then don’t say it.”

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