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Tech Etiquette Guide

Tech Etiquette

Say your please and thank yous. Ladies first. The fork goes on the left side of the plate.

The rules of manners and etiquette in everyday life are well established, and for most of us, ingrained since childhood. But when BlackBerrys, iPods and laptops enter the equation, things get a little foggier. And everyone has seen people who could use a gentle prod in the right direction: The idiot yammering on his cell phone in a five-star restaurant, the guy on the subway with his headphones around the neck cranked to max, or the oblivious girl gazing into her iPhone while her date across the table looks for the quickest way to make an exit. But it isn’t always that easy.

For example: Is it less considerate to horde pictures from a night out when other people want to see them, or to post them on Facebook when they might not be flattering for everyone? How many emoticons in an e-mail are too many? And when do you absolutely need to have your phone on vibrate?

Fortunately for us socially inept tech cretins, there are authorities on such things. Thomas P. Farley penned Modern Manners: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Social Graces, wrote a column on etiquette for Town & Country magazine, runs, and is currently working on his next book, which will focus exclusively on tech etiquette. We sat down with the guru of all things polite to hammer out some basic guidelines for embracing gadgets without driving everyone around you up the wall.


As the most well-established form of digital communication, many people have already sorted out the ins-and-outs of e-mail. But that only raises expectations for the right behavior. To begin with, many people tend to abandon the conventions of proper writing just because they’re doing it on a computer. You don’t have to start e-mails with a letterhead or other such relics of the print world, but omitting capitals and no punctuation, or – worse yet – using all caps, are all out. “All these E.E. Cummings wannabes just think speed is more important than punctuation or spelling,” says Farley. “Don’t be so lazy. Spell checker would do 99 percent of the work for you.”

Over familiarity can be another common faux pas. If you don’t know someone, don’t jump right to a nickname, even if it seems like an obvious one. You may be tempted to e-mail with “Hey Joe,” but it’s presumptuous to assume he goes by Joe unless you know him personally, and might start you off on the wrong foot. When is it safe to switch? “Wait until a person responds and signs using a nickname,” says Farley. “Then you’ve got free reign to use it.”

And watch how you use those CC and BCC boxes. Believe it or not, the carbon copy feature wasn’t invented for tattling on coworkers, and blind carbon copies were not for snickering at a series of e-mail replies behind someone else’s back. “Use CC when there’s a genuine reason when someone should be cycled into the conversation,” says Farley. “Don’t use it to pull out the daggers for somebody at work.” Besides being in poor taste, both methods can blow back on you when parties start to realize that their contact with you is no longer private.

As for the contentious issue of emoticons, Farley thinks they’re tolerable, as long as you keep them to only a couple in any given message. Once you go much further, it’s time for a different medium. “If something is that nuanced that you’re having to put in a smiley here, a frown here, a wink, it’s probably a conversation that deserves to be had on the phone,” Farley says.

Annoying Cell PhoneCellphones

Cell phones may be the most complained about of all digital devices, and for good reason. They drag private conversations into the public, push work life into personal life, and with the innovation of texting and smartphones, serve as 24/7 distraction devices. But a few simple tricks can prevent you from being the one who constantly catches icy glares in supermarket aisles.

Number one, just keep your voice down. It may seem obvious, but for whatever reason, people tend to enter their own personal worlds on the phone and lose complete perspective of how loud they’re being – especially in already noisy places where the inability to hear the party on the other end seems to mentally translate to “must shout into the phone so they can hear me.” Simply bringing your voice down a notch will alleviate the biggest slice of cell phone-related irritation, and make the world a quieter place, too.

And know when to simply put the phone away. Movie theaters and the cash register at your local Starbucks stand out as the most commonly cited places to keep it in your pocket, but Farley says he’s a particular stickler for hanging up before stepping into an elevator, where the people around you are quite literally captive to your conversation and only feet away. “There’s nothing more annoying than being stuck in a crowded elevator with someone just blabbering away.”

What about when you’re just hanging out with someone? Moves like pulling your phone out and putting it on the table at lunch like it’s another member of the party are an absolute no-no. “The message you’re really sending to the person you’re with is, ‘You’re not really interesting enough to me to hold my attention for this entire lunch.'” Farley says. “How would somebody feel if you popped out a television and set that down on the dining room table? It’s the same kind of effect.”

Dealing with voicemail properly is a two-way street. On one hand, Farley says callers need to keep the messages they leave for other people short, since not everyone has time to listen to a 10-minute account of your day. On the opposite end, you should make a point of actually listening to the messages people leave for you before calling them back, since asking them to recount the details they already left in a message wastes their time.

When is vibrate appropriate? If you’re a guy and you carry your phone in a pocket, Farley insists as often as possible is the way to go to minimize the disturbance to others when you receive calls. If you’re a woman and carry yours in a purse where you might not feel it go off, a ringtone is OK, but try to stick with a default ringer, and avoid obnoxious sound effects and music. Ringback tones, which replace the ringing sound callers hear on the other end with music, can also be seen as presumptuous. Not everyone wants to be subjected to your choice of tunes as they wait for you to answer.

As for text messaging, know when to use it and when not to. Farley recalls a friend who waited hours at home for a pool contractor, only to find out that the contractor had texted him to tell him he wasn’t coming. He never received the message because his phone didn’t support text messages. Not only had the contractor made the mistake of assuming a text message would reach his client, he clearly copped out in a bind and used a text message to avoid having to explain himself over the phone. Bad etiquette – and business practice – on both accounts.

Which brings us to another all-too-common abuse of tech: Using last-minute messages to friends to cover for your real-life lateness. It may make you feel better to let your friend know you’re still miles away in the car at the moment you’re supposed to be meeting them at a restaurant, but it doesn’t make you any less late. “Before, without the ability to contact someone, you knew they were waiting, you had no way of reaching them, and you pushed yourself to make it on time,” Farley says. “Now people think, ‘If I’m running 15 minutes or half an hour late, I’ll just text them.’ But it’s still inconsiderate.”

Social Networking

Twitter, MySpace and Facebook have basically carved out a whole new niche for interaction on the Web. But as with any medium, the rules for what’s acceptable and what crosses the line have still yet to completely gel. The most important axiom to grasp: Not everyone has the same standards you do. “Your boundaries are not going to be the same as everyone else’s,” says Farley. Your friends may consist of college buddies and close friends, but you never know whose boss, coworkers or parents are looking on at their page.

Case in point: Don’t just go plastering up those photos of your friend with a beer bong because you think they’re hilarious. “If you were at a party and you took great, funny and incriminating photos of all your friends, you want to think twice before you put those up on Facebook, and get their permission before you do.” Farley’s approach is usually to create and post an album, provided there’s nothing outrageous in it, then share it with only the friends who were there, leave it up to them to tag themselves, and always offer to remove any photos that friends aren’t comfortable with. The same goes for old photos that might be a throwback to an era you remember fondly, but your friends would rather forget. Ask first, post later. Even if it’s a little conservative, your friends will usually appreciate the extra consideration.

What about those friend requests from your boss, or your 60 year-old aunt? Unless you want them to be privy to all the details of your life, consider using restricted-access settings (like a limited profile on Facebook) that will tone down what they see to just the basics. That way, you’ll avoid the awkwardness of snubbing them, but retain your privacy. If you really don’t want to friend someone, or see it as inappropriate, like a teacher with friend requests from students, don’t be afraid to click that deny button. Just be prepared to explain yourself in person, if your rejected “friend” asks questions. Farley believes a consistent policy makes this easiest, so Jeff from marketing won’t feel singled out when he finds out you declined him due to your “no coworkers” policy. (Setting a “no jerks” policy may not be nearly as diplomatic.)

On Twitter, it’s easy to get tunnel vision when tweets back and forth between friends become almost a conversation. But don’t ever forget that it’s all broadcast for everyone to see. Farley cautions against letting private details slip in messages to friends on Twitter (“@gainfullyemployed congratulations on the new job!”) when a person might not want his or her entire Twitter base to know (“@gainfullyemployed were you planning on giving us two weeks notice?”).

Check out our podcast on Facebook Taboos.

IM Away MessageInstant Messaging

For those of us who spend any appreciable amount of time in front of a computer throughout the day, logging on to chat clients like AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo! have become like second nature. They’re a great way to multitask, but you can also turn into a distraction or a burden for some people if you’re not careful.

For your own sake, get in the habit of leaving away messages. Not only do they let other people know whether to drop you a line, they’ll save you from unwanted interruptions when you’re busy or just don’t have time to talk. On the same note, make sure to respect other peoples’ status and away messages. “If you’ve never IMed with someone before, I would want to be sure that it’s really someone who’s going to welcome your name popping up on the screen,” says Farley. “Be cautious in the way that you use it, that you’re not intruding into someone else’s life when it’s not welcome.”

And once you get going in a conversation, make some attempt to actually keep up with it. Everyone will need to step away from the desk now and then when a conversation carries on for two hours, but a quick “brb” does wonders to resolve the ambiguity when you suddenly stop responding. “If you’re in the midst of a rip roaring conversation, you shouldn’t just up and walk away, in the same way that you wouldn’t just put down the phone in middle of a sentence and walk away,” says Farley.

Like in e-mails, you’ll also want to go easy on the emoticons and abbreviations. “If the thing starts to look like some government document because there are so many abbreviations, that’s barely communication anymore,” Farley says. “It’s really defeating the purpose of all this instant communication when the person is completely befuddled about what it is you’re trying to say.” And emoticons: Go easy on them, unless you want people to think you’re a nine year-old girl.

The Golden Rule

You don’t have to memorize an arm-long list of tips and tricks to keep from inadvertently running afoul of poise and dignity with your techie toys. Farley has a much simpler axiom: “Always remember that people are more important devices.” Think of the store clerk who makes you wait at the cash register with cash in hand to answer the phone to talk to someone miles away who may or may not ever come in to buy something. It doesn’t make sense. “You can’t forget that you have live human beings right next you, and they deserve your attention before you give attention to your devices,” says Farley. “If you follow that rule, you can probably solve 90 percent of etiquette dilemmas when it comes to tech.”

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