friendship

These are the questions you should never, ever ask.

In an era where house prices can be Googled and are often the main theme of dinner party conversation, and incest is on the lunch menu thanks to a Game of Thrones recap, are there any social taboos left? Is it better that it’s all out in the open now? Or have we forgotten the art of manners and a bit of mystery?

Director of etiquette school Etiquette and Co. Michaela Launerts, thinks that there are plenty of social taboos left, we’ve just forgotten about them and are offending our friends as a result.

“The lines between public and private are being blurred. We’ve lost sight of the fact that in reality people still become offended. Speaking about politics, sex and money, especially, is still considered taboo. Everybody is still cringing,” she says. So, why are people now so comfortable asking personal questions?

Launerts says technology is to blame. “The way technology is at the moment has enabled us to get this false sense of security. There’s an illusion that we’re protected by the screen and we’ve lost sight of the reality that people become upset. We can express views from behind the screen and have this confidence and anonymity that doesn’t exist face-to-face at a dinner party.”

Is technology taking a toll on our social interactions? Image via HBO. 

The doyenne of manners is etiquette queen June Dally-Watkins. She comes from another era. It was one before we took our iphones to bed with us. She believes technology’s domination in our lives has dehumanised us. “People don’t seem to care about other people’s feelings anymore. They don’t think how their words and actions might affect someone, or that maybe they don’t want to have that discussion or conversation.’’

Technology may have made us ruder but it’s also made us closer. Perhaps there’s no such thing as a personal question anymore. When you’ve been regaled on Facebook and Instagram with the minutiae of how someone spent last Saturday, the matter of privacy seems almost moot. We’ve all been at a social gathering where house prices are being discussed. It practically seems in the spirit of friendly research to offer up the amount you paid for your property or how much rent you fork out. Some people will go on to ask, quite openly, what wages you’re earning in order to afford the mortgage. On the one hand, this could be seen as a more authentic, intimate way of interacting, on the other, it could be offensive and presumptuous.

Etiquette from a different era. Image via Getty. 

Launerts says that we’ve lost the art of tailoring our conversation to the right audience. “With money and wages and house prices if you’re with a group of friends talking about how expensive houses are on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, for example, that’s fine, but you don’t always know what financial struggles and emotional baggage goes along with that for people. It’s about being sensitive to other people’s positions. Avoiding is the safest bet.’’

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This almost seems counter-intuitive nowadays and is in direct conflict with online culture, which is all about expressing our views no matter how much they might offend others. The difference is, of course, proximity and consequences. You can delete or ignore someone’s response to you on social media, but not someone sitting next to you.

Dally-Watkins says that because we spend so much time online we have no idea what is the wrong and right thing to do when we’re talking face to face. “We’re losing that face-to-face connection,’’ she says.

“Consequences aren’t so immediate online,” says Launerts. “An opinion or rant on Facebook is very different from an opinion at a dinner party, or face-to-face, where people are likely to challenge you straight away. Online you can say what you want and you have time to think of, and send, a response. People are not prepared anymore for the conflict that can arise at a dinner party.”

Are dinner parties, and parties in general, a dying breed? Watch Mia Freedman, Kate De Brito and Monique Bowley discuss. 

Behaving badly is perhaps a symptom of the lines between fame and infamy being blurred, she says. “Maybe it’s all arisen because fame and infamy are the same thing now and everyone wants to be famous. Now you can be famous for doing something bad. It’s a sex tape, but oh, look, you’re famous.”

Which, is of course, the opposite of manners and mystery. So, is there still value in retaining a bit of mystery? A bit of privacy? Launerts believes so. “I think it’s about controlling your personal brand and how you are perceived by other people. Everything now is reactive. But sometimes it’s about not putting things out there. We don’t always have to make our positions clear. Our opinions would be more educated and informed if we took the time to think and create, not just react.”

Launerts runs a social media etiquette master class where she teaches people how to step back and think about what they’re saying and doing online. “I teach young people not to use it as a platform to vent hatred or racism, or bully people, but a place to learn.” And that might involve going back to basics.

“People have been so busy trying to catch the technology train they’ve forgotten,’’ she says. “There are no new rules, the same rules still apply. Ultimately we have to deal with each other. No man is an island and the only way can function successfully is if we relearn what that means.”

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