Unless you’re royalty, the chance that you’ll be asked to manage more than 4 utensils during the course of a meal is pretty slim. Very probably (unless you live in Portland with a comedy mustache and carry a cane and a top-hat) you’re not in the habit of leaving calling-cards at the houses you visit. You might not even hold doors open for ladies— although you should.
However. You are subject to a much more exacting form of etiquette, one which is fast nearing ubiquity. The oscillating, mushy and impossible landscape of ‘tech etiquette’ is all around you.
the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.
ORIGIN mid 18th cent.: from French étiquette ‘list of ceremonial observances of a court,’ also ‘label, etiquette,’ from Old French estiquette
It might not cross your mind very often — after all, ‘tech etiquette’ (or its simpering cousin, ‘netiquette’) sounds like something you’d find in Reader’s Digest, or one of those awful clickbait blogs. Best left to the FW: FW: FW: FW: crowd. This is a sign that you have a healthy and discerning mind.
Etiquette, at its core, is a societal codification of the fundamental principles of Civilization: that in order to live harmoniously we must live (to some degree at least) homogeneously. Tech etiquette is not really a new phenomenon, merely the extension of an old phenomenon to new media. The multitude of utensils have been replaced by queueing for the sugar at a Starbucks, the calling card is replaced by the Facebook wall post, and holding doors open for ladies has been replaced by, I guess, texting them a <3, or something.
The exciting thing about this new etiquette is that right now we are watching the formulation of the rules and codes that will govern mankind far into the future. New cases pop up for trial in the electronic etiquette courts every week, such as the recent banning of Google Glass in a Seattle bar.
I started thinking about tech etiquette sometime last week when a coworker sent me a blunt six word email without capitalization or punctuation. My immediate gut reaction was a little flare of outrage, but I very quickly realized there was no cause for anger, or rather that there was no reason for me to get angry. The nature of email as a medium is that in order to gain functionality and adaptability it sacrifices a lot of relational bandwidth. There’s no real-time chance for back-channel behavior, there’s no conveyance of emotion or tone, and most of all there is no guarantee that the sender and recipient have anywhere near the same reference points for meaning. Really the only thing you can safely take from an email is the information provided. In fact, in the case of the email I received, it could even almost be seen as a courtesy: after all, it took me hardly any time to read, and my brain didn’t have to work very hard to figure out the meaning. The problem was, as a human being I immediately attempted to provide some kind of emotional/relational context to the information.
If this sounds at all familiar, then tech etiquette is something you can’t ignore. Here’s some rules I try to live by regarding any written electronic communication — email, text, Facebook or Twitter message:
Don’t supply any of the meaning yourself. It’s very easy, especially as a highly-functioning human being in the 21st century, to try to apply as much already-held ancillary knowledge to anything you encounter as you can, in order to aid understanding. In this age of fast-flowing data we’ve become adept at synthesizing information. The problem with using this skill in electronic communication is that, more often than not, you’re actually going to muddy the meaning. Don’t make your email correspondence like a Jane Austen romance. Read what’s on the screen and nothing more.
If it gets you riled up, sleep on it. Contrary to the biblical adage, sometimes it can be a good idea to let the sun go down on your wrath. I learned this one from wiser heads than I. I’m sad to say that I’ve fired off many a hasty reply to an email, only to think better of it the next day. I can think of about three times where writing the angry email was a good idea.
Make sure even a small child will understand what you mean. This is a twofold rule. The first part is pretty simple and involves one very important step which no-one does: proof-read your messages before you send them. You’re bound to catch something, and the time you’ll save from not having to explain yourself will more than make up for the time you spend on a quick once-over. The second part is harder: make sure that you communicate in a predictable way. If you like one-line email, do that, and stick to it. You’ll quickly become known as the one-line guy, and no-one will take offense. Sad to say, if you like to be more wordy, you’ll have to stick to that unless the relationship or the context warrants it.
Be forgiving of misunderstandings. Even if you try hard, sometimes wires will get crossed. Don’t meet anger with anger: be prepared to explain yourself calmly and more clearly. You don’t want to escalate an electronic argument, because unlike an in-person altercation, the evidence is going to be there until the heat death of the universe.
Treat email/electronic messaging as a tool, not a relationship. Far too many people I know live in their email. This is the electronic equivalent of hanging your butt out of the window in a car wash, whilst you’re trying to solve a Rubiks cube inside. You are going to get distracted by new information not on your schedule, but on everyone else’s. You are not going to do productive things with the email you get if it’s constantly superseded by new things coming in. Instead, I try to do email in two or three intense bursts every day. A cool side effect of this is that it conditions the people you email to not expect instant replies. Managing expectations keeps people happy.
You don’t need to follow any of these guidelines. You might just want to grumble away in your angry cave of misunderstandings. But if you do make an effort to build some etiquette into how you communicate, there’s someone whose day you’re going to make a lot more enjoyable. Spoiler alert: it’s you.
Published on March 24th, 2013