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Digital Etiquette: Don’t Be Too Utilitarian

The point of etiquette is to smooth over social relations by providing a bit of uniformity—like paving a roadway. With that in mind, Nick Bilton’s advice [1] in the New York Times on whether, for example, to send brief thank-you emails is not terribly helpful: “think of your audience. Some people, especially older ones, appreciate a thank-you message. Others, like me, want no reply.” Well, yes—if you know in advance what somebody’s preferences are, you can tailor your correspondence to suit them. Etiquette is what you need when you don’t know and don’t want to risk embarrassment by making a wrong guess.

It seems to me that thank-you emails fall into a realm where proper etiquette is not to take offense or have expectations either way. It’s certainly snotty to get upset about someone thanking you, even if a brief email conveying gratitude is a bit of time-waster for everyone. (Most etiquette is somewhat wasteful; it’s not purely functional.) But even most business email is informal and utilitarian, so don’t take offense at not being thanked, either. Forbear until convention—and attrition—resolves the ambiguity.

Bilton notes that “opening an e-mail with ‘hello’ or signing off with ‘sincerely,’ are disappearing from the medium.” That’s fair enough, but I still use a salutation and a friendly sign-off, not for the sake of an old convention but to set a tone. Opening with an informal “hello” or “hi” and ending with “best regards” or “all best” is a way of softening whatever blows may fall in the body of the correspondence. Without such pleasantries, rejecting an article or calling for extensive revisions, or even conveying good news in businesslike fashion, can sound very cold. And too much fluff in the body of a message creates confusion—best to open with a warm handshake before getting down to business, to keep clear the difference between personal esteem for a correspondent and the hard facts of whatever is under discussion. With personal acquaintances that stuff is unnecessary, but it’s good business to set people at ease, even if the form for doing so is a little old-fashioned.

On the other hand, I completely agree with Bilton’s advice against leaving voicemail. Someone too busy to read an email won’t be very happy to take a call or listen to a voice message. There are times when Alexander Graham Bell’s invention is indispensable, but dispense with it whenever possible, and don’t make it your first recourse.

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7 Comments To "Digital Etiquette: Don’t Be Too Utilitarian"

#1 Comment By Leinad On March 11, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

E-mail etiquette is very important when trying to get someone you don’t know or don’t know well to do something for you. I can’t tell you the number of students I get sending me e-mails without salutations, valedictions, or even indicating who is writing. They usually read something like this:

“Whats the HW? Thanks.”

While I can occasionally tell who the sender is based on the e-mail address, there’s not much one can glean from such inspired handles as “[email protected]” When I get e-mails like this, I usually send back a note demanding another e-mail that addresses me like a human being, not a Facebook wall. Kids these days!

#2 Comment By Scott Lahti On March 11, 2013 @ 5:53 pm

“Without such pleasantries, rejecting an article or calling for extensive revisions, or even conveying good news in businesslike fashion, can sound very cold.”

That’s why, in their infinite and borderline wisdom, the g-ds of the copped e-book headings also devised the emoticon and the sardonym, the better to blow the softeners of excess politesse, viz.:

From: Aychelme Enkin, Editor, The Merkin Valkyrie-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha
To: Wing Q. Nutt, Hun E. Nutt, The Hon. E. Nutt (D- Taxes)

Dear Les Mis Nutt (Hugo, girls!):

Your smoking joint article, “The Rollback Began Five Minutes Ago, Yelling ‘Pot’ “, on the need for retro-active stoning forward into the Bomb Age of all countries falling short of the sort of Pharisaical right-wing rectitude your human pyramid – your journalistic Cheops were never in question – so honestly and Abely defended, starting with the United States, does not, alas, meet our needs at the present time, at least until the pipe dream of our joint venture with The Onion – not to mention (too late!), heh, cough! High Times – passes muster with Area Men from Editorial to Circulation:-> And please inform your pre-K children that it is no longer necessary to submit manuscripts under the letterhead of their mommies and aunties.

LOL,
AE

“There are times when Alexander Graham Bell’s invention is indispensable”

This here thread, it seems, is big enough for more than one fan of [2].

#3 Comment By Tom On March 11, 2013 @ 7:37 pm

Dear Scott Lahti,

Thank you for your post.

As a fellow fan of Nick Lowe, allow me to draw your attention to a small oversight:

“Switchboard Susan” was written by Mickey Jupp. Please see the album credits for Mr. Lowe’s “Labour of Lust” album here:
[3]

Nick Lowe certainly did write many excellent songs, including “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”

Regards,

Tom

#4 Comment By Scott Lahti On March 11, 2013 @ 9:01 pm

You are welcome, Tom, and of your role in this thread’s turning Juppanese, I really think so highly that I thank you as well: as the entry at Wikipedia (a site with whose articles I recommend many an encounter, whatever your politics) on Mickey Jupp reminds us, [4] – a proverb that, in the form of the first name of the [5] of those two musicians a dab – or perhaps 10cc – of whose full name when pronounced inside the Bryll-Creme Building will also do you, would seem to have triggered a more primarily lowercased instance of that laughing aloud that in the age after which rpm gave way to MP3 is proverbially all-capped.

#5 Comment By Etiquette appreciation On March 12, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

Outside of email etiquette, Dan and The American Conservative team are the gold standard of conservative organizations in respect to taking the time to send thank you notes for donations.

It really makes a difference when there are so many organizations competing for a very limited pool of dollars. TAC has always been impressive.

#6 Comment By Jim Bovard On March 12, 2013 @ 2:39 pm

At least Dan doesn’t hate telephones as much as H.L. Mencken did.

Yet.

#7 Comment By David On March 12, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

One thing that I find interesting about current email etiquette is the lack of it among most college professors I deal with. I’ve been in correspondence with a number of them over my years in higher education and no matter how much thought I put into an email, most will right back with a “sounds goods” or “we’ll talk about it”, often lacking correct punctuation and capitalization.

I suspect this is so because of the sheer volume of emails they get from students and staff, however it does lead one to wonder if they’re setting a bad example.