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Shut up, he explained*

Back in January, Elizabeth Large, our veteran restaurant critic and one of my most valued colleagues, wrote about an odd little experience on her blog: “I guess restaurant critics aren’t as important as they think they are”:

Wow. That was weird. I just called the new Firehouse Coffee Company in Canton to get some info for next week's Table Talk. Jay answered the phone, and when I said my name and who I work for, he said, "Ma'am, you'll have to talk to the manager. I'm alone here and kind of busy." Click. He hung up on me.

Her loyal commenters swung into action, some taking the part of the overworked employee trying to attend to customers while the telephone is ringing, but the majority describing the behavior as rude.

Three months later, the post came to the attention of the baristo, who added this comment:

This is the Jay of which you spoke so "highly" of in your review of the Firehouse Coffee Co. Although I am no longer at that location ( I work at Cafe Latte'Da for those of you who want real service!!), I would like to just say that you are wrong for thinking that I was being rude to you. I recall that day and I was truly busy. If you are so interested in reviewing a place maybe you should get off your ass and see it for yourself first hand instead of slacking off with your ear to a phone while you sip on Dunkin Donuts coffee and shovel a freakin bear claw down your throat!! If you want to see what kind of service I do provide feel free to visit me at my new job. Until then, I bid you good day. ...

For the benefit of readers who may have been raised by feral dogs, let me explain how things work among human beings in what we lightly describe as civilization. If you cause someone offense to someone, you apologize. “Ms. Large, someone told me about the post on your blog, and I am terribly sorry that you felt badly treated. I was indeed on my own and overtaxed when you called, but I realize that I could have been less abrupt. Please accept my apologies.”

For all it has done to ease communication, the Internet has not done a great deal for civility. The opportunity to say things to people electronically that one would never say to their faces, combined with the temptation of instant response without reflection, does not elevate the discourse. And the anonymous posters and trolls make things very nasty indeed.

It does not have to be so, even when you disagree strongly with someone. I’m not telling you that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all.

Ms. Large, as a native of the South, no doubt understands that formal courtesy can be as deadly as the stiletto. Calculate, if you like, the increase to Jay’s self-inflicted damage by her decision to approve his comment without commenting herself.

Chris Mooney, writing a devastating little essay on George Will’s writing about global warming, manages to establish through cool factual explanation, without ever making personal remarks, that Mr. Will is entitled to his opinions but not his own set of facts.

The trouble with mere abuse is that the impact wears off. Given the enormous outpouring of it on the Web, the only way to achieve notice is to heighten the intensity of the abuse, and it’s not long before that stuff burns itself out. Better to hold back from the instant response and think over the possibilities.

As Mike Waller, a former publisher of The Sun, used to say, the most valuable function an editor can perform is to ask, “Are you sure you want to do this? Are you really sure?” If you do not have an editor to perform that function, you’ll need to construct one in your head. Until that project is completed, it’s a good idea to shut up.


* The title of this post is taken from one of Ring Lardner’s greatest lines.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:37 AM | | Comments (2)


An excellent point. On the one hand, I often wish I was more confrontational in real life, and I wish others were less so online. Or rather, that they would make their points in the sort of nuanced way that could be addressed.

As someone who knows exactly how cutting adding "Bless his heart" can be to a critique, I'm not sure that civility is always better - sometimes it's infinitely more satisfying (on both sides) to raise a middle finger. Then again, sometimes not.

You caught me offgaurd with that feral dogs remark. Made me laugh out loud.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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