A New Etiquette For Modern Communication

Frank Bruni spun up a good piece about modern communications confusion. A funny set of anecdotes about the thoroughly modern mess of communications: which way to get in touch with people?

Frank Bruni, Sorry, Wrong In-Box

Recently, I missed an interview because I was 20 minutes late and the subject assumed I was a no-show. I’d been texting her about my delay because we’d communicated that way before. But it turns out that she has two mobile phones, and was monitoring the one whose number I didn’t know. Meanwhile, she was sending me e-mails, but it didn’t occur to me to look for those.

But Bruni doesn’t make concrete recommendations: he’s just scratching his head and saying aw, shucks.

So here’s my recommendations for a new etiquette of modern communication:

  1. Never call a person’s phone (or Skype, etc.) without arranging a time first. Talking is a lean forward, rivalrous medium, and requires people to dedicate a block of time to that purpose, which is, generally, already allocated to some other use. The arrangement for a time to talk should be handled through a lean backward, non-rivalrous medium like texting, Twitter, or email. Many people (like me) simply never answer their phone unless they have a call scheduled, since it generally entails talking to someone who lacks modern grace, like someone from your cable company trying to sell you an upgrade, or your mother-in-law.
  2. Never presume that since someone has an account on a social network, like Facebook, that they regularly check it. Even if they have recent posts there, those could be coming from some automated connection. In my case, I never post to Facebook, but things float through from other apps. Just because it’s your favorite inbox, don’t assume it’s mine.
  3. Don’t use voice mail if you have any other alternative. Like a phone call, voice mail is a lean forward, rivalrous experience that requires the user to dedicate time to listen attentively to your message, and to write down any pertinent information with one hand while holding the phone to their ear with another. An imposition. I often don’t even have a pen with me. And many young people simply do not use voice mail. My son, Conrad, has never configured his voice mail, which at least has the benefit of informing callers that it is inoperative. In my case, my voice mail tells people to contact me by email, and I have configured Google voice to send voice mail to me as email, as well, just in case. Just don’t rely on voice mail, at all.
  4. To the degree possible, let people know your preferred mode of communication, rather than giving them a list. One mode of communication. If you don’t want people to call without arranging it first, don’t give out your phone number until you’ve made an arrangement to talk, for example. I took my phone number out of the signature in email, for example, but I left my Twitter handle. I have my phone number on my business cards, but I think I will drop that practice that in the next batch, for simplicity.
  5. If you want to initiate communication with someone, use their preferred mode of communication. I text with my kids, because that works best for them. I communicate with most of my closest friends via Twitter, but use email with my cousins. And I talk to my mother-in-law by phone because she worked at AT&T for a hundred years. Be flexible. The initiator has the obligation to take the time to work out what is best for the person at the other end of the communication.
  6. Don’t presume that since you have initiated a communication with some random person, that they are obliged to respond. In the context of work, some companies have policies that employees will respond to all calls or emails of an official nature within some prescribed period of time, like 24 or 48 hours. Fine. But outside of that context, and especially in the personal realm, no one has an obligation to call you back or respond to your email, today, tomorrow, or by the end of the month. Get over yourself. Most people, especially those of us living and working out loud on the web, have just too much going on and far too many requests for our time to guarantee any response cycle. It’s best to think of an email or a tweet as being like a comment on a blog: maybe it will elicit a response from the blog post’s author, and maybe it won’t.

I know that a lot of people will disagree with all or some of these recommendations. In particular, I expect that some folks will assert that it is rude to not respond to communications from others. My response is that these are new times, when communications cost the sender nothing. They don’t have to lick a stamp to send their junk to me. Everything I receive that is potentially spam, or an annoyance, or a request for unwanted involvement can be deleted and ignored, because I owe the senders nothing.

Of course, if I have a personal relationship with someone, then other considerations apply. My close friends get a fast turnaround, while others I know less well get a somewhat slower response. But don’t think that since I met you at a conference two years ago, and you are now selling some new software product missing a few vowels, or have some scheme you’d like to discuss, that I am obligated to get right back to you to set up a time to talk. There is a great deal of spammish behavior in quasi-personal communications, and I don’t feel the need to go along with the pretense of false camaraderie.

If you want to rise above the noise of the howling world all around us, be concise and clearly explain why you are contacting me, and what would be the best and single way to get in contact if I decide to. If it is interesting, I’m likely to respond, and eagerly. I’m not a misanthrope, I’m just crazy busy.

And don’t get your feathers ruffled if I don’t reply. In these modern times, it’s not an affront, it’s just how things work.

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