Read an Excerpt
Manners in a Digital World
Living Well Online
By Daniel Post Senning
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 The Emily Post Institute, Inc.
All rights reserved.
We love our mobile devices. We love our Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter accounts. No one can dispute that the Internet has—in just a few short years—reshaped the way we live our lives. From finding old classmates on Facebook to using FaceTime for reading bedtime stories to our kids back home when we're on business trips, we are more instantly connected than ever before. Gone are the village well and the water cooler as the places to get the latest news; now information—from wedding photos to tweets about breaking international news—is shared and consumed from the palm of our hands. All this connecting can help us to do what matters most in etiquette: build and support the relationships that matter to us.
Unfortunately, nearly every day there is another headline illustrating the latest example of bad cyberspace or mobile-device behavior. Personal e-mails are sent to the entire company. Phones go off during concerts and movies—even worship services. People insist on talking about the most personal topics in the grocery line, on the train, or at work. Embarrassing videos depicting egregiously bad behavior are posted on YouTube and spread through social networks like wildfire. Maybe we are seeing more outrageous behavior than ever before because we are recording more of it and sharing it with more people than was possible even just a few short years ago. Certainly the glut of digital information often leaves us dazed and confused, and worse, overwhelmed and filterless.
Obviously we value manners, or we wouldn't feel so aggrieved at how frequently they are ignored. I often take calls from reporters wanting my comments on the perceived decline of manners in an increasingly digital world. I see what they're getting at, and the numbers are there: One recent study showed that nearly three-quarters of Americans think that mobile-device manners are getting worse, and the same study showed that one in five people excuses his or her own bad behavior because "everyone is doing it." I think it's the rare person who hasn't been offended by someone's bad tech manners (be it from a smartphone or a social network) at some point.
But this book debunks the myth that there are no manners to be found in today's mobile communication environment. Sure there are bad manners, but there are good ones too. Take the very word "etiquette." From the French for "little signs," it also connotes "social rules" both in French and in English. In fact, the two meanings share a history. King Louis XIV of France needed to give his nobles a bit of help behaving properly at his palace at Versailles, so little signs were posted telling them what was what—social dos and don'ts for dummies, so to speak. It's been fascinating to watch new "etiquettes"—little signs—that tell us how to act showing up in response to bad mobile behavior. At the pharmacy, at the gym, in restaurants, at salons, at banks—they're everywhere: "No cell phones, please."
Beyond the signs from management, there are self-imposed rules as well. Most people know not to take a phone call right in the middle of a meeting (or at least to step outside first) and to send a text instead of making a phone call to tell a friend you're running late. Even reaching for a smartphone to settle a debate at a dinner party about which film was Clint Eastwood's directorial debut is frowned on (unless your dinner companions ask you to).
Rapidly developing technologies and new ways of communicating can challenge long-established social norms—such as not interrupting a meeting or bugging your fellow diners. However, the fundamental rules that guide all good social interactions still apply no matter what medium connects two people: Treat others with respect. Think about how your actions will affect the people around you. Be considerate of the feelings of those you interact with. Whether it is a blog or a smartphone, the degree to which new media help us build and sustain our relationships depends entirely on how well we use it.
Anna Post, my cousin and a business etiquette trainer at the Emily Post Institute, has built an effective teaching moment into her corporate seminars when she talks about the best ways to use a smartphone. She takes out her phone, the latest and coolest device on the market, and holds it up in the air. "This is my phone," she announces. "It is not rude; it is not polite. It's just a phone. It's how I use it that could be rude or courteous." This demonstration is a very simple, clear, and personal way to illustrate the heart of the matter: thinking about how using any piece of technology will affect other people is the key to using it well.
Let's take it offline for a minute. Niceness, also known as good manners, speaks to behaviors we describe as civil, "being cool about something," "doing the right thing," or being appropriate for the time, place, or company we are in. The word "etiquette" technically sums it up, but frankly, it can sound old-fashioned.
Offline, basic niceness is about treating those around us with consideration, respect, and honesty. We don't have to pretend to be someone's best friend, and we don't have to smile sweetly if insulted. But we do have to be in control of our own actions, and we have a responsibility to act respectfully toward others.
This is no great leap forward, and although a great deal of our technology is brand-new, the socialization that occurs through it is not. While the digital world has opened new ways to socialize and new ways to expand a social circle, the interaction is as old as two people getting together to talk about the best way to start a fire from two sticks and some leaves. We are social creatures, and digital devices and platforms just give us new ways to do the same old things. We talk to one another. We connect. We do business. We meet new people. We fall in love.
Without the check of a reproachful glance, people can be unkind and inconsiderate, as well as frustratingly anonymous. Most people don't set out to offend, but because everyone is more connected than ever before and because almost everyone has a camera-equipped phone, the unintended offense can reach far and wide. Technology makes communication so easy, immediate, and convenient—available anywhere, from airline seats to toilet seats—that it unfortunately also makes it just as easy and immediate to be unintentionally rude. We all know how easy it is to pass on a negative story, complaint, or sometimes even just a bad feeling. On the web these instances have the potential to be shared and amplified, turning ripples into waves. When we have access to so much information about one another all of the time, it's easy to forget the boundaries we should keep.
There's no question that the immediacy of communication causes stress: "I need that report now!" "Did you get the e-mail?" "I just read the verdict—didn't you?" "Are you in the loop?" It's eight thirty p.m. and your boss is calling—again. Immediacy can be convenient, and it can also be overwhelming. Instead of thinking, we often just react.
Generational perspective can be another point of friction. Ask a room full of Americans if they think we are ruder today than twenty or thirty years ago, and a solid majority of hands will go up. (I do this at the start of every business seminar I teach.) We all easily fall prey to the feeling that society is slipping. And yet every generation throughout history has felt this way. What we learn when we are young becomes our "normal," our standard. But society and its norms, social codes, and manners move on as times change. New social codes emerge, and old ones disappear as they outlive their utility. Knowing where you are in this shifting landscape is part of figuring out the best ways to behave. It can feel as though today's cascade of digital information is washing away the manners of the past, but it is just redefining the coastline a bit. Keep your wits about you and you may even find a wave or two to catch and ride to higher ground!
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
When it comes to new technology and digital manners, we have all experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some aspects of new technology allow us to really shine and be our best, most engaged, selves—the good. There are other aspects that seem to encourage and even amplify bad behaviors and tendencies—the bad. And then there are all the things that have no specific human intention behind them but that can nonetheless have a significant negative influence on how we feel and act—the ugly. I'm thinking in terms of the spaghetti western film of the same name, from Italian director Sergio Leone. The world is more complicated than just black and white, good and evil. His film is a comedic wink that life isn't so simple and clear. You'll need a little half-smile on your face to confront life's inevitable complexities. And it's just as true in the digital Wild, Wild West.
Let's not forget that new technology can be a vehicle for the very best manners. Not the first thing that comes to mind? A connected world provides more opportunities to be courteous and considerate, not fewer. For example:
A teen uses her phone to call her parents when plans change, because she doesn't want anyone to worry.
A client unexpectedly writes a glowing recommendation of you on your LinkedIn profile.
A friend stuck in traffic calls to say he'll be late.
A colleague Googles "Jewish religious services" before visiting a synagogue for the first time with a new friend from work.
A couple sets up a wedding website to help coordinate travel information for the guests who are attending their dream wedding in Hawaii.
But of course with the good comes the bad. Just as new communication technology presents opportunities for good manners and building relationships, it also allows for some truly egregious behavior. Think ...
A coworker so engrossed in personal calls, IM chats, and beating the next level on Angry Birds that he completely forgets to reply to the client who was waiting to hear from him
The person in the waiting room chatting on a phone, sharing the intimate details of her recent gallbladder surgery
A commuter who is texting while driving and doesn't notice a semi-truck has moved into his lane
The Facebook friend who posted a picture from her bachelorette party that was best left on the hard drive
Nothing's perfect, including the latest mobile device, gadget, or app. There are certain aspects of our new media landscape that, although annoying, are part and parcel of where communication technology is at today. They can be incredibly frustrating, and sometimes even feel like personal slights, but in reality have little to do with the behavior of the people using them. We can learn to minimize and live with them, but they are not going to disappear, however well we act or well intentioned we may be. Learning to deal well with these technical foibles is part of operating with any grace in this brave new world.
Dropped calls and endless software updates are so common that they are simply accepted as daily frustrations in the digital universe.
Autocorrect texting and e-mail errors have even become a source of great humor, and depending on the error, great embarrassment.
The hilarious Facebook quiz your friend just took requires you to give the app permission to access all of your personal information.
Answering purse- or butt-dial calls from a friend whose phone calls you more than he does loses its appeal quickly.
These ugly, communal badland experiences litter the rough-and-tumble, Wild-West digital communication terrain. To truly enjoy the benefits of cutting-edge new tools we need to understand and accept their limitations, and then remember to be patient with people when we're inconvenienced by something that may not be their fault or intention.
It's All About Relationships
No matter where you live, how old you are, or what language you speak, you have some combination of friends, family, loves, and/or coworkers in your life. Digital communications have the potential to affect all of these fundamental relationships, and we want to get it right. When we are trying to figure out the best way to use a new device or the best way of communicating, the answer always depends on what's best for the people involved. Is it the right way to get in touch with the person? Texting my grandfather probably won't get me anything but a confused phone call, so I might as well call first and skip the confusion. And the girl I just met at the coffee shop—no "maybe we could hang out sometime" e-mail for her; face-to-face is the best way to impress her when asking her out on a date. But it's also about the people who aren't in my personal sphere. I have a relationship with them to honor as well, so I'll step away from the crowded gate area to check in with a client. This approach—thinking about how my actions will affect relationships—can be employed again and again to decipher what the best digital manner is for any situation that could arise, now or in a 3.0 world.
If Only Common Sense Were Common
When the advice on manners I teach at seminars or provide in media interviews at the Emily Post Institute elicits the response "Well, that makes sense," or "That sounds like common sense," I know I've done my job. Manners should make sense in relation to the way we really live—they can't just be arbitrary, archaic, or esoteric rules for their own sake. So, if the behaviors that I describe as embodying good manners seem so intuitive that their application to a given situation is a natural fit, I know I have identified fundamentally useful material.
And why do we need to spend time stating the obvious, so to speak? Because despite the elegantly simple solutions to most etiquette situations—take responsibility, think about the people around you, act in ways to make things easier for others—bad behavior persists. Put simply, people don't always do what appears obvious and correct to those around them. Someone has a bad day and therefore feels their rudeness is justified, or doesn't make the effort to use what they know is good behavior. Getting past the laziness and lack of awareness and excuses that precede a rude act takes practice. It needs to happen again and again until the right behavior becomes habit. Good behavior is achieved by continuing to remind and reaffirm and act in ways that overcome the tendency to put ourselves before the people around us. Make a mistake despite your best efforts? Try, try again. Much of what I will suggest as best practice and good behavior in this book should sound intuitive once you stop to think about it. I certainly hope so anyway!
Netiquette Today: The Good News
So where are we now? In a world where people know how they want to be treated but don't always get it, figuring out the best ways to behave sets you apart. Technology now lets you reach out to new business contacts on LinkedIn that you'd never have had access to before. It allows you to have relationships with far-flung fifth- grade best friends and long-lost second cousins you'd never stay in touch with otherwise. And via blogs and tweets and social-network groups, you can form meaningful connections with people you may never even meet in person. You can do all these things and more, but you have to do them well and you have to do them appropriately to get the most out of them. Rather than feel overwhelmed by this thought, there is tremendous empowerment not only in the access you have to new people, but also in how you choose to structure your interactions. Don't like the tone of a community? You don't have to join it. Wish someone had replied to your post? Reply to theirs instead. Modeling the behavior you'd like to see in the digital world puts you in the driver's seat. Ultimately, you get to decide how you will act and build your relationships. And the benchmarks for that behavior are the same fundamental principles that Emily Post applied to human interactions back in her day—treating people with honesty, respect, and consideration.
Excerpted from Manners in a Digital World by Daniel Post Senning. Copyright © 2013 The Emily Post Institute, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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