Business Report

Attending to Digital Etiquette

Emily Post might have advised us to keep informal IM language out of e-mail and avoid watching Twitter feeds when colleagues are speaking.

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.

Mr. Manners: Office technology is only as good as the etiquette of those using it, argues Daniel Post Senning.

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.

What are the appropriate times to use instant messaging as opposed to e-mail?

Generally speaking, I see instant messaging as being more for asides and socializing. Actual business is happening through e-mail. But I don’t think there are established norms for instant messaging in business yet.

Texting and e-mail are often done from the same devices, and texting abbreviations, incomplete sentences, and cryptic language are creeping into e-mails. It’s just not appropriate for business communication. In business, defer to the more formal.

With mobile devices, how can employees—and companies—strike the right work-life balance?

We used to talk about “work creep,” the way work life was starting to creep into people’s private lives. The flip side of that today is “life creep.” The degree to which you’re available [for work] on the weekends may balance out the degree to which you’re available to friends and family at the workplace. To what extent are you responsible for explaining that?

Is it up to employees to figure out these issues?

I put a lot of responsibility on the user. If you’ve got your personal iPad at work because you have an app to run PowerPoint and use it as a presentation tool, and you have a boss who’s technophobic, you might mention that’s why you are bringing it in.

What responsibility does the employer have?

Take the example of an organization giving employees smart phones. If the company expects employees to use these devices, the company needs to provide guidelines as to what’s acceptable and what isn’t. And is there an unreasonable burden or expectation that people become answerable all the time to that device?

Are these kinds of etiquette dilemmas entirely new?

Not at all.

Every generation has had to survive a change in the conditions of the world and the manners that go along with it. Etiquette is a combination of manners and principles. The manners change, but the principles don’t. The fundamental principles of etiquette are honesty, respect, and consideration. Those guiding principles stay the same. We might not know to dog-ear the calling card on the left side to indicate that it’s being left for the woman of the house, the way they did 150 years ago, but we know you’re not supposed to use the cell phone at the dinner table. Each generation has to learn the etiquette of its time.

What’s the modern equivalent of the dog-eared calling card? Maybe a winky emoticon?

It might be. The calling card was used when you called on someone’s home. Depending on how you were received and whether people would see you, you would present your card to the butler. You would dog the corners depending on your intent and who you were visiting. There was a subtlety to the code. My cousin and I downloaded the same set of emoticons—so that could be a modern equivalent. There is a subtlety to the coded language we use to send each other messages on our new phones. 

Just don’t let text-speak creep into your business e-mails.

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The Future of the Office

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