Well, maybe not all of us have become trolls. But far too many of us feel free to “speak our minds” in ways that are vitriolic and hurtful.

“In Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtroʊl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers…” (Internet troll – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

What an interesting time we live in.

We have access to the immediate thoughts of so many talented and diverse writers, some amateurs like me, but also some of the big names in writing today. Via “talkbacks,” Facebook, and unregulated comments sections, we are given the remarkable opportunity to be heard, and often to communicate directly with our favorite writers. And writers can hear, in real time, what their readers have gained, or what insights they may have to share, prompted by the writer’s efforts. What a wonderful gift!

I was reared by Miss Manners, aka Judith Martin. (Yes, Gentle Reader. Back in the day, we “raised” corn, and “reared” children.) Her books taught me so much about how to cope as politely as possible in a rapidly-changing world. My first encounter with her was in the following (paraphrased) comment I read in her newspaper column.

A reader had written to her asking (with much harumphing) how she was supposed to speak to the man her male friend had introduced to her as his boyfriend. I mean (harumph, harumph) — what was she supposed to say when introduced to such a person???

“Gentle Reader,” said Miss Manners, as nearly as I can remember, “You should say ‘How do you do?'”

Ms. Martin made being mannerly seem so simple. Of course! It was often a matter of just leaving one’s “baggage” at home, and just dealing as politely as possible with the human being and the moment. Whatever one’s feelings were on a particular subject, lifestyle, choice of clothing or table setting — well, feelings are attributed to the heart for a reason, aren’t they? Is every feeling really everyone else’s business?

I haven’t consulted with her on the topic… but I wonder what would be her advice about the current “Share all!” climate of talkbacks, and the even more luxurious playground of personal message. One of the phenomena of most concern to me is the automatic tendency to attack the writer of a comment or post, rather than the more mature and polite method of asking questions, respectfully. How I would love to see snark set aside, and replaced with query!

“I am sure that I misunderstood what you meant when you said ‘…'” What a lovely opening to true intellectual dialogue, instead of the too-often-written “I’m so glad I didn’t have you as MY mother-in-law/daughter/brother-in-law/teacher…” Really? That is the best university-educated humans can come up with?

Certainly, let’s share our ideas, even when we disagree. But let’s try to be civilized throughout the discussion.

There is still a lot of very nice dialogue out there on the internet. I am grateful for the opportunity this “free speech zone” has afforded me to meet and get to know wonderful writers and thinkers.

I pray that I will never ruthlessly attack someone, rather than trying to understand her way of viewing the world, necessarily colored by her own very different baggage. We’re all on this bus together, and we ought to try to make the ride as pleasant as possible for each other.

“Excuse me, Gentle Writer. Is that seat taken?”