The mere sight of someone belting entitled demands to a service worker or spewing out racial biases is enough to make a Gen Z shudder.
As the most diverse generation in history, it’s no secret that Gen Z is leading the charge in promoting acceptance and inclusivity across the board. In recent years, our generation has established itself as a force for social justice and equality, tirelessly amplifying the voices of those historically silenced and marginalised.
But unfortunately, our aptitude for tolerance seems to vanish all too quickly when we interact online. We’ve all witnessed the cesspool that is the TikTok comment section (need I remind you of the fairy comment era?). And the fact of the matter is, even when these users believe they are being helpful, it often comes across as a little aggressive.
So, while we may see ourselves as progressive and accepting, especially compared to previous generations, a broader question remains unanswered: why do we fail to practice what we preach while communicating online?
Over the past few weeks, TikTok has become the unlikely stage for discussions about politeness, thanks to the commentary creator Michelle Skidelsky. Her viral video on how kindness and consideration for others are part of a broader social contract has sparked debate across the short-form video app.
“I think some of you need to realise that… there is an invisible social contract that governs the way we interact in the world, and it’s there for a reason… sometimes we have to do things out of politeness”, she begins. “I see people talking about why I should participate in a conversation that doesn’t interest me? You don’t have to participate in that conversation. But you also can’t not expect people to get upset with you when you break the social contract of niceness and politeness… there are consequences to that.”
While most viewers saw Michelle’s message as a simple reminder of a fundamental aspect of human interaction— that we owe everyone a sense of decency and kindness at face value— some users took issue with her video. They claimed that the creator was advocating for compassion towards individuals who are racist and sexist, while others felt that her message attacked neurodivergent people who have difficulty interpreting social cues.
Michelle later took to the platform to clarify her original video, noting that she was not trying to excuse harmful behaviour. Instead, it was a call for everyone to approach people with a base level of empathy and kindness.
“It doesn’t extend to anything else that people thought it did… I wasn’t talking about neurodivergent people that struggle to understand social rules, I was talking about people who do understand them and still choose to do the mean thing anyway,” she said.
While we must continue to stand up for people who have long been erased from the mainstream, we should question the amount of backlash Michelle received —especially with many TikTok users dismissing her original message as “hypersensitive.”
Michelle has gone on to address such claims in her recent content. As a fellow Gen Z, she has taken it upon herself to call out our generation’s hypocrisy when it comes to politeness. In a world where many of us prioritise the idea that we don’t owe kindness to others, it becomes problematic, especially when our generational values are centred around the pursuit of social improvement and inclusion.
“We [as Gen Zs] want the world to become a more tolerant, kinder, better place… but on a micro-scale, when it comes to our personal real relationships, it becomes I don’t owe anyone anything,” Michelle says. “Just because we want to do things differently from the generations that come before us … doesn’t mean we have to throw away the playbook for how society functions.”
Take a moment to consider characters like Paula and Olivia from The White Lotus Season 1, and it perfectly illustrates Michelle’s point. For those unfamiliar with the show, The White Lotus follows the lives of affluent vacationers and employees over a week at a resort.
Hailing from a privileged background, Olivia has invited her friend Paula for the family holiday. As Gen Z university students, the two frequently bring up issues relating to privilege, colonisation and wealth inequality, often calling out Olivia’s family. But as the show unfolds, it becomes clear that a genuine desire for equity does not drive their concerns but rather a sense of self-righteousness and entitlement. Both characters seem to harbour a sense of superiority when communicating with other hotel guests, largely driven by their virtue signalling and performative activism.
This self-centered and individualistic mentality is all too common on social media, and it’s no secret that it has led to some disturbing consequences for Gen Z. It seems that many of us tend to prioritise the impact and outcome of language, even if it means disregarding values like politeness, kindness, and common decency along the way. In other words, the ends justify the means, even if it requires bulldozing through these essential principles.
Think back to the Hailey Bieber and Selena Gomez drama that dominated just about everyone’s TikTok FYP last month. Users flooded comment sections with hateful messages aimed at the likes of Hailey Bieber, Kylie Jenner, and Justine Skye, calling them “mean girls” after they seemingly made fun of Selena Gomez. Despite claiming they were standing up against bullying, these TikTok users perpetuated the very thing they were fighting against. The fact that these users were so quick to jump on the bandwagon when it remained unclear whether the so-called “mean girls” were actually shading Selena made this behaviour even more alarming.
The back-and-forth became so heated that Selena and Hailey posted statements on their Instagram stories, pleading with internet users to stop sending death threats and promoting negativity.
In response to Michelle’s video, TikTok user @JRoRo222 highlighted the disconnect between Gen Z’s inclusive values and behaviour during the Selena-Hailey drama. They wrote, “This is also so ironic considering how Gen Z just spent the past two months hating on ‘mean girls.’ If you don’t have to be polite, why do they?”
When we reflect on the (mostly unwarranted) backlash to Michelle’s commentary and recent viral events like the Selena-Hailey drama, it becomes abundantly clear that Gen Z’s priorities regarding communication differ vastly from the ideals we preach. While we claim to champion inclusivity, tolerance, and acceptance, our chronically online behaviour doesn’t always align with these values.
As internet users embrace a “whataboutism” mentality, it is clear that social media is heading down a “no-nuance” path. With this in mind, it is more important than ever that we recognise that bullying others into kindness is not an effective solution. Only by acknowledging the discrepancy between our online communication style and goals for society can we create a cohesive and harmonious digital community that embodies the values we hold dear.