An Open Letter to the Youth of America (from Matt Shaw):

My friend Matt Shaw gives today’s young people a bit of advice on social media and tact.

Dear young people,

We need to talk. See, I don’t know how many of us are really listening to you, but I am. I have been for a while. I wanted to let you know that, because I’m not sure you really, truly knew that I was listening. But I am. I can hear you.

I’m not going to comment on the quality of the things that I hear. It’s unfair for us adult types to tell you on the one hand to live your early years with abandon while you can get away with it, and on the other hand tell you that you all sound like a clutch of raving fools. We can’t have one without the other. I get it. Keep saying what you’re saying, keep sharing what you’re sharing, keep doing what you’re doing. I’m not going to stop you.

But I want you to know something. I can hear you.

It’s really easy, isn’t it? It’s easy to let people know what you’re thinking. When you have a bad day, you put it on Facebook. That way you’re not keeping it in. You’re expressing yourself. And you’re giving your friends an opportunity to help you through the down times. It’s easy to have a bad day when you can talk about it, isn’t it? And with your laptop, the computers at school, and your cell phone, you can talk about it pretty much whenever you want, can’t you?

But here’s the thing. Here’s what we need to talk about. You’re about to enter into a world where you’re expected to have something called tact. Tact is a funny thing. It’s the process of strategically not talking about things. When some of the older folks out there use phrases like “playing your cards close to your vest,” or “keeping it under your hat,” they’re talking about tact.

Sounds shady, doesn’t it? It’s not, though. Tact isn’t about keeping secrets, really. It’s about presenting certain pieces of information in a way that takes into account the desires of other people. You don’t complain about the crappy weather at a funeral, because when you’re at a funeral no one needs to be reminded how crappy a day it is. That’s tact.

The world you’re entering expects you to have tact. It expects you to take into account a variety of factors before you present information. This is a very basic skill that does not appear in any high school curriculum. And without it, you can’t possibly expect to get anywhere without first changing the way the world operates. (I’m not saying you can’t, but in this case it’s probably not a very good idea.)

A few weeks ago, I heard a bit on the radio where a reporter asked high schoolers some pretty easy questions about civics. Who is your governor? When you’re of age, will you vote Democrat or Republican? How many senators are there in Congress? And while the answers to these questions were predictably obtuse – one kid thought Ted Kennedy was the governor of Massachusetts – what got me were the brazen, off-the-cuff responses that clearly identified the speaker as someone who had never thought about politics at all.

Q: Who do you think will win the gubernatorial election today?
A: I don’t know. I don’t care. I hate politics.
Q: Why don’t you like politics?
A: Because it’s so corrupt. I don’t think there should be any government at all. We’re all people. We should be allowed to take care of ourselves.
Q: So you don’t think there should be anything in the way of government at all?
A: No way! Get rid of all the politicians and all the laws, and just let us live our lives. Let us be free.

I know. You didn’t think anyone was listening when you said that. But I was. I heard you. And now you’re stuck with the things you said. Now whenever anyone thinks about you, they’ll think about this very poorly thought out statement.

Tact involves admitting what you don’t know, and speaking only when you know something about the subject matter. It’s okay to not like politics because it’s corrupt. It’s not okay to suggest dismissing all politicians because some politicians are corrupt. There is a very good reason that the political system operates the way it does. You need to do your research before you speak.

We all want what we say to have impact. The irony is that if we knew exactly what people thought about what we said, we might not like the impact that we’re having. And because we often have no idea what kind of impact we’re having on other people, we just keep saying things that are louder and more absurd than the last until someone finally calls us out.

So here’s what I want you to do. This is very important. I want you to go ask your parents, your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, your legal guardians, your guidance councilors, your homeroom teachers, your role models, your coaches, and every other adult role model you have what tact is and how you should use it. Not for our benefit — for yours.

All the best,

–Matt Shaw

About Ezra Englebardt
Account planner, digital nerd, marketing guru, tweeter, occasional blogger, cyclist, snowboarder, mountain biker, social media junkie and avid reader. CU-Boulder and Boston College alum. Frequent guest speaker in Boston-area universities.

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