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In 1922, Baltimore society woman and magazine correspondent Emily Post wrote the book on etiquette. An encyclopedic guide to the manners of its time, Etiquette became a best-seller and launched a family business.

Her descendants are carrying on the task through the Emily Post Institute, and her great-great-grandson, Daniel Post Senning, is working on a book about etiquette in an age of digital communications, mobile devices, and social networking.

Technology Review asked Senning for insights into the proper use of technology in the office.

TR: Is the proliferation of office technologies making people ruder?

Senning: My family calls it the “technological brick wall.” You put enough devices between you and another person, and you can forget that there’s a person there. The technology itself isn’t rude. The existence of the technology might allow someone to forget about the impact his words or actions are having on someone at the other end. The vast majority of bad behavior is inconsiderate behavior.

Like, say, when someone is scrolling through Facebook or Twitter posts while you are giving a presentation?

It’s rude if someone is not giving you their full attention. It’s not that uncommon, and it’s most commonly the supervisor or the organizer texting or doing e-mail. You’ve got to model the behavior you want to see. Say, “I’m going to be doing a 15-minute presentation; please turn off your cell phones.” Make the expectation clear.

What do you do when the offender is, indeed, the organizer or your boss?

Incivility studies show that the vast majority of rude behavior in the workplace flows down the chain of command. It costs twice an annual salary to replace an employee, just to get a new warm body into a seat. One common reason people leave jobs is they don’t feel respected by someone above them in the chain of command. And if you get into the subtler studies, even if you don’t lose the person, you lose productivity to negative thoughts—e.g., “I’m not respected here.” Just that thought intruding on “I’ve got a project to finish” is really costly.

What should you do when your supervisor, or your employee, sends you a Facebook friend request and you’re not comfortable with it?

You’re not obligated to accept a friend request. There are a lot of good ways to handle it. Some suggest that you respond to them via a different medium—respond with an e-mail and say, “I only use Facebook for close friends and family, but I’d love to connect with you on LinkedIn, my professional network.” Another option is simply to ignore it. Or you might manage your Facebook account to accept that request in an area with business contacts—like what Google+ is now doing.

Can you give an example of the negative impact of words delivered through a technological medium? What are some e-mail faux pas?

One is when people are unaware of what’s deeper in an e-mail chain, and someone’s opinion about a boss or an employee gets sent to that person. Another is when people use blind carbon copy inappropriately to secretly send e-mails to someone’s supervisor and hedge bets. And a final one is failing to use appropriate salutations and greetings, particularly when approaching people for the first time.

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Credit: Emily Post Institute

Tagged: Business, Business Impact, The Future of the Office

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