How does a style piece, about a beautiful Georgian townhouse become a diatribe against an (assumed) parenting style?
Words hold the power to inspire and change lives. As writers, our words have the potential to expose both the best and worst of humanity. We must use our words responsibly.
I can’t seem to shake a tweet out of my head. I’m stuck on it, rubbernecking at it. Before I continue, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: I don’t believe the intention of the author of the tweet in this discussion, is to cause any malice or to incite the viral pile-on we now see.
Whilst the tweet, subject to this discussion, is in the public domain, I don’t feel it is necessary or relevant to name the Twitter account it originates from. I want to focus on the interpretation of the tweet and the lessons we can take from it, rather than on the individual who wrote the tweet in question.
The author of the tweet has almost nineteen thousand followers on Twitter, in addition to the kudos of a blue tick. In late January 2021, she shares images of an article from a Sunday Times supplement paper.
The heading of the article reads “It’s An Adult House That A Baby Lives In’” with a subtitle of “Can you create a clean uncluttered space when you have a nine-month-old baby? Alice Kemp-Habib meets the fashion couple determined to keep their rented townhouse (relatively) toy free.”
The tweet posted alongside the shared images reads “lol come back when your kid is three and let me know how it’s going”.
To understand the reach of these words, this tweet was “liked” almost nineteen thousand times, it was commented on and retweeted over two and a half thousand times.
As I scan through the comments, I witness a mass digital pile-on. The couple in the article face a barrage of abuse. They are called sad, deluded, narcissistic, smug, child abusers, misguided fools, idiots, completely clueless, and joyless. These are just a few, of a whole host of less than endearing terms.
To be clear, the original tweet does not share the full article. As such, the commenters base their words on an article they have not read in full and thus they do not have all the information, and yet, the unsavoury comments are plentiful.
I wonder what the couple is doing so horrendously wrong, to invoke such a strong reaction. I don’t see the harm in wanting to keep a nice house, free from toys cluttering each room.
The comments range from condescending at best, to jealous and spiteful at worst. Some are venomous and cruel. Many of the comments refer to the couple as smug. I don’t see any smugness in the couple. However, I do see smugness in some of the comments “As a parent of two, I was once like you, you will learn …”
Reading through the comments of the original tweet, I feel increasingly uneasy. I appreciate it is my choice to continue reading, I find it both fascinating and compelling. However, it takes the passing of several days to process my reaction to this tweet, my feelings are layered, so let’s start peeling the onion.
Layer one — my personal reaction
Firstly, some of the comments have a trigger effect on me. Many comments suggest the couple will (and should) change their parenting style. These comments reek of a “you will change your mind” vibe, which as a childfree by choice female, I have had the misfortune of hearing all too often. People tell me I will “change my mind” in relation to my decision to forgo having children, they say this as if they know me better than I know myself.
It is an offensive and condescending remark. There seems to be an expectation that we all jump on the same bandwagon and drive along the same path. Society puts up a resistance to anyone doing things differently. Society does not like anomalies.
I believe the tone of the original tweet is mocking and condescending, which serves to encourage the vibe of the comments.
Layer two — sensationalism
The images are photos of a newspaper article, this includes photos of the interior of the house in question. It is a beautiful Georgian house and the whole purpose of the article is to showcase the house, the gorgeous artefacts within and the stunning design. The piece is about style, it is not about parenting.
Perhaps the title of the article doesn’t do it any favours. I feel it is important to highlight the article does not say the child has a lack of toys, it simply says the couple hope to keep their townhouse “relatively” toy free.
Perhaps rather amusingly, a plot twist occurs in the body of comments. Those commenting share images of their own living spaces, full of plastic, mess, toys and children. It almost becomes an in-house competition between the commenters; the messier your house, the better a parent you are.
It seems the commenters take it upon themselves to jump to conclusions. But here’s the thing; do they take it upon themselves? Or, may I be so bold, as to suggest the original tweet is a leading tweet, which (unwittingly and unintentionally) incites the comments?
The commenters focus purely on the title and subtitle, filling in any blanks; thus it becomes sensationalized. It is an article on style, any mention of the child and her toys are incidental to the article. I can confirm (from reading the full article) the child has toys, which when not in use are in storage, safely and tidily in her bedroom. Yes, the couple does not like plastic toys, nor do they believe their child needs a million toys.
Layer three — Schadenfreude
Let’s look at the original tweet again: “lol come back when your kid is three and let me know how it’s going.” I get a sense that the author of the tweet, expects the couple to fail. But you know what I find most unsettling — I feel she wants them to fail. So with the original tweet both expecting and wanting the couple to fail, it gives permission for the commenters to express similar messages. This is possibly my biggest discomfort with this tweet, all the commenters are expecting and wanting the couple to fail.
In my search for an English word with a definition of “wishing failure upon another person,” I couldn’t find anything suitable, the most appropriate word is a German word; schadenfreude which refers to pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.
I dive deeper into this term and find some interesting pieces.
An article by Jeanna Bryner, suggests, “If somebody enjoys the misfortune of others, then there’s something in that misfortune that is good for the person.”
Dr Nicole Lipkin, an organizational psychologist suggests in an article on schadenfreude, that people want others to fail when a situation involves envy.
So is this the key reason the commenters want the couple to fail? Are the commenters all envious of the couple, their nice house and beautiful artefacts? Is the fact that the couple has a nice house, nice things and a baby, a bone of contention here?
Layer four — I’ve tried and failed so it can’t be done
It is awfully arrogant to believe your own failure will determine the failure of others. Many of the comments express an assumption that the couple will fail; citing personal experience as their evidence.
If we limit ourselves by the failure of others, we automatically create a glass ceiling and do ourselves a disservice. Imagine we lived in a world where scientists did not dare venture into the realms of the previous failures. Imagine if engineers and inventors gave up when told: “it will never work”. Consider the consequences if we listen to the plethora of voices that tell us “That’s not possible, there’s no point in even trying”.
It’s extremely important to recognize that just because we can’t do something ourselves, it doesn’t render it impossible for others.
Instead of spreading a dialogue of limitations, let our words inspire creativity and promote self-belief.
Layer five — ensure your writing is empowering
Sometimes, if you are told enough times, by enough people, that you will fail, you start to believe it. Perhaps this is my overarching issue with this tweet. It creates a pile-on of doom wishers, which could affect the couple’s chance of success.
If the original tweet read “I was unable to do this, but your house is beautiful and I wish you all the success in keeping it that way” I believe the onslaught of comments would have a different tone. Perhaps different wording would attract comments from Twitter users, who are already managing to keep their house relatively clutter and toy-free. Perhaps they would provide encouraging tips on how to achieve this. But, as we know, misery likes company, and all the commenters on this tweet appear to want to drag the couple down.
We must be careful what bandwagons our words build. Let us have faith in the anomaly and believe in succeeding against all odds, it can be done.
Instead of spreading a dialogue of limitations, let our words inspire creativity and promote self-belief. By using positive language we will break the glass ceiling and achieve growth. After all, we can experience happiness vicariously, through the accomplishment and positivity of others.
Thanks for reading Ali Hall