The appropriate response to the death of a celeb—whether it be Robin Williams or Lauren Bacall—is always one of respect, says etiquette expert Peggy Post of the Emily Post Institute. “Think about the feelings of other people,” she cautions, “particularly those of the bereaved relatives who may come across your comments. You may be facing an inanimate screen when you’re typing, but words resonate in the minds of human beings. Don’t forget you’re actually communicating with a person,” advises Post.
Unfortunately, many people fail to make the connection that celebrities are real people with families and friends, and they use the opportunity to crack wise or speak negatively. Post says that insensitivity can come from excessive familiarity: “They are always in front of us and their lives have become so public, which leads some people to feel like they can say whatever they want.”
Twitter and Facebook lit up with fairly heinous comments after Paul Walker died in a car accident in December of last year. Some derided the Fast and Furious star (also a father, son and brother, by the way) for everything from his career to his looks. The recent death of Robin Williams also triggered a few thoughtless observations online. Actor Todd Bridges referred to Williams’ decision to take his own life as “selfish” on his Twitter page. Later, Fox News’ Shepard Smith called Williams a “coward” during a broadcast.
By now, we’re all familiar with the post-offensive-tweet apology—Bridges and Smith both recanted their insensitivity—but you can save yourself the headache of publicly backtracking by choosing your words carefully in the first place. “When someone has died, you don’t need to be critical or talk about the issue of suicide in general. Keep it positive and keep it short. ‘We’ll miss him.’ ‘He was wonderful.’ Something to that effect.”
And if that doesn’t feel authentic, you can always exercise your right to remain silent.