I hang out on a lot of finance/frugality related message forums and websites and I’m noticing a disturbing rise in the number of people being mean to those who ask for help. There have always been people who get their shorts in a wad over this or that hot button issue; that’s nothing new. And not every posting is always happy, happy, joy, joy. But these boards used to be a place where people were generally civil and helpful. Since the economy has gone south, I see a lot more anger and venom on these boards than I used to. It’s like the gloves have come off and people are feeling much freer to rip into someone for their bad choices.
I thought about why this should be and I came up with this: I think that a lot of people are furious right now. They are angry at the banks for making bad loans. They’re angry at the government for not fixing the problems or trying to fix the problems, depending on the particular political bent. They’re angry at individuals for making bad choices and racking up debt they can’t pay, which costs everyone. They’re angry about tax increases and real estate devaluation. I get it. I’m one of the angry people. And I think that this anger is coming out on the message forums, which is helpful to no one.
When someone posts that they are in trouble financially, more and more people are unloading on that poor person about how they screwed up and blaming them for everything from the housing crash to the credit card companies acting like bozos. The posts are also coated in a layer of self righteousness that goes along the lines of, “My choices are so superior to yours. It’s no wonder you’re in trouble because you can’t be as perfect as me.” The problem is, all this venting and self-righteous chest thumping is not helping anything. If anything, it’s making things worse.
Why worse? Think about this. What if you were in trouble and needed answers? You want to know how to get out of the mess you’re in and you need a crash course. You turn to a highly recommended message board and ask for help. Some people are helpful, but others jump on you and blame you for everything that’s wrong in the world. Then they turn around and tell you that you’re basically stupid, have no self control and that, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” Would you be likely to continue on your financial journey and work on getting things under control, or would you say, “Forget this,” and go on with your financially destructive ways? Unless you’re highly disciplined and self-motivated, you’d probably choose the latter course.
I understand being mad about the way things are. Heck, half the time I turn on CNBC and you can watch the steam come out of my ears. I do get angry when I see people and companies making stupid choices that are going to cost me money in the long run. But we have to move forward from here. The damage is done. I think it’s a good thing that some people are looking to clean up their personal share of the damage and make things better. They need help and reassurance, not blame and hatred. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for tough love. Sometimes people don’t see where they’ve gone wrong until you put it right in their face, in bald terms. But there is a difference between tough love and outright meanness. It’s okay to point out, in a constructive manner, where someone has gone wrong and offer suggestions for how to fix things. But to call them names, to dredge up all of their past mistakes and beat them with them, to tell them that they wouldn’t be in this mess if they were as perfect as you, or to accuse them of something that’s not wholly their fault is wrong and destructive.
Just because you or I have led a good financial life does not give us cause to lord our good choices over others. Maybe others haven’t had the education we did, or the “lucky breaks,” or the financial role models that we had. Or maybe they did and none of it “stuck” until the poop hit the fan in their personal financial world. Whatever the reason for their mistakes, it’s not up to us to judge what they did with their money. We can’t know the full circumstances behind their problems and choices and, even if we did, we need to remember that none of us are immune from screw ups. We all screw up from time to time and none of us are perfect. It is up to us to help them do better in the future.
Those of use who frequent and post on message boards can’t fix everything. We can’t change what the government does, and we can’t stop companies from throwing lavish parties with our bailout money. But we can change how individuals respond to this economic meltdown. We can be compassionate and helpful to those who are struggling. We can be educators and work change people’s actions for the future so we don’t end up in this mess again. So, please. If you see a post from someone looking for help, check the impulse to unload your anger on them. Go lock yourself in a closet and scream into a pillow. Ask yourself if you would like to be talked to in the manner that you’re about to use. Then come back to the computer and try to answer their questions without anger, judgment, or resentment. We’ll all be better off.