Etiquette in the Internet Age

By Sarah W. Caron

Once upon a time, calling cards were en vogue, billowing long skirts were the norm and girls were chaperoned everywhere. Times have changed, but the need for proper etiquette has not. So what are the new rules of etiquette now that Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and blogs have changed everything?

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Smart Use of Your Smartphone
One of the biggest changes to culture is the advent of the always-connected woman. With smartphones, we are constantly reachable, always a finger-tap away from email and totally inundated with communication. It’s no wonder that we check email dozens of times every hour and find ourselves losing time getting sucked into social media on all our devices. But, experts say that just because you can be constantly connected doesn’t mean you should be.

“The new rude is that we multitask people,” says Laurie Puhn, a couples mediator and relationship expert and bestselling author of Fight Less, Love More. “Good, decent people have developed some very bad technological habits.”

Among those habits? Using our smartphones at inappropriate times – like when we are mid-conversation. Instead, she says, it’s absolutely key to focus on the person who is in front of you while you’re talking to them. “The person-to-person conversation is more important than the conversation through your phone,” says Puhn. Otherwise, it can negatively impact your relationships, leaving friends and lovers with a feeling of neglect.

So, what’s the proper etiquette of phone use? “When you are in a room (with other people), you should not be a distraction,” says etiquette expert Grace Joshua of Graceful Lady, Inc. She says that it’s not appropriate to have the phone on the table during dinner or to talk on it while walking, crossing the street or riding on a bus. 

“Loud discussions are inappropriate and violations of others. I should not hear what the person is saying to you or what you are saying,” says Joshua. “It’s like walking down the street years ago with a boombox on your shoulder. It’s invasive because not everyone likes your music,” says Joshua.

Instead, be subtle, step outside to use the phone and don’t inconvenience others with your deeply personal conversation in a public place, says Joshua.

Appropriate Emailing
These days, it’s not uncommon to receive dozens – or hundreds – of emails a day. But the ones that are personally written should always go to the top of your inbox and get a reply – even if it’s only a brief “thank you” or “OK.” The courtesy of a reply, however brief, is just good manners. 

“When someone sends you information that you requested or something that you didn’t request – we forget that there is a person on the other side of the email,” says Puhn. But there is a person there, and not replying can be a turn-off and damage a relationship (bad manners will do that!).

But don’t worry, unlike the old days when thank-you letters needed to be long and in depth, you can be brief in your reply and still be exercising good etiquette. “You don’t need to write a long email, but if you care at all about this person and you want to receive an email from this person again, just click reply,” says Puhn. “It fosters a good relationship.”

That’s not all. Be sure you use proper spelling and grammar in your emails, says Joshua. Slang and text-speak are inappropriate.

What else is inappropriate for emails? Anything that’s very personal or that you wouldn’t want a potential employer to see, says Joshua. Once you send it out there, you can’t control where it goes once the person receives it. 

And break-ups don’t belong in an email either – that’s just plain rude. “If you are in a relationship and you don’t think it’s going to work, you owe that person the courtesy of a phone conversation. You should be a little more human,” says Joshua. “I think breaking up in an email is very inhuman and unkind and selfish.”

Netiquette 101
The Internet – which is like a modern day Wild West in a lot of ways – can be a place filled with bad manners and poor behavior. Don’t let yourself be part of the problem. Remember: Whatever you say (or write) does impact others; if you wouldn’t be comfortable saying it in the presence of another person, you probably shouldn’t say (or write, text, post, or Tweet) it at all. 

“Web communication removes the immediate facial expressions that tell us to shut our mouths,” says Puhn. “The underlying issue is that the Internet has allowed us to become even more egocentric. It’s selective communication.”

While it’s OK to only click on things that interest you online, that should never carry over into your real-life communications. “Internet communication is all about finding our own preferences in people and in topics. We have a lot less tolerance in real life for things that don’t interest us,” says Puhn. “The truth is that relationships are built on listening to some things that you aren’t interested in.”

Keep in mind that it’s polite to listen to others even if their topic of conversation doesn’t interest you. And remember to ask questions to further the idea, too, says Puhn – it makes people feel valued. 

Good Etiquette is a Good Thing
While most of us probably never had to go to finishing school or learn how to be a good hostess in college, good etiquette is still important. So, the next time you’re on the train and pulling out your iPhone to make a quick call, remember to keep your voice low and your topics discrete. The bottom line? Your actions impact others – and remembering that is the cornerstone of good manners.

Sidebar: IRL Etiquette (That’s “In Real Life”!)
What about IRL manners? Well, a lot of the old rules still apply. For instance, says Joshua, saying hello and goodbye to people is polite. So, when you step on the elevator, say hello to others on it. 

Finally, thank-you notes – the handwritten kind – are not passé when it comes to gifts. “You should take the time to write the thank-you notes for your gifts,” says Joshua. That’s a good-manners move that never goes out of style.

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