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iOn the Contrary-i Virtual Manners

February 1, 2000
Related Topics: Featured Article
Several years ago, I interviewed Miss Manners -- a.k.a.Judith Martin -- for an article on business etiquette, and found the wholeexperience unnerving.

    You see, talking with Miss Manners isbit like talking to the office know-it-all. She answered my questions as ifeveryone on the planet should know how to act in a given situation. If ourconversation had taken place in person instead of over the phone, I’m sure Iwould have seen her eyes rolling back into her head. At one point, she asked me:“Are these serious questions?” implying that only vulgar magazine writerswould not know the proper rules of business etiquette. Once I recovered fromthinking I had somehow offended the world’s foremost authority on socialconduct, I concluded the interview and put Miss Manners out of my mind.

    But lately, I’ve been thinking abouther again because I’ve been thinking a lot about manners. More specifically,I’ve been thinking about the abominable lack of manners, particularly when itcomes to online communication.

    Just this week, I received an e-mailfrom a public relations person at a health insurance company who was writing totell me about the company’s policy on privacy with regards to patientinformation. The message itself was fine. The problem was the e-mail not onlyincluded my name and e-mail address, but the names and addresses of at least 200other journalists, including well-known reporters from ABC, NBC, CBS and Time.

    While the e-mail was a horrible breachof privacy for the recipients -- ironic, considering the message was about thecompany’s alleged concern for privacy -- it was also a horrible breach ofetiquette. Not only did I have to scroll through several screens of names to getto the actual memo, I also felt like I was nothing more than faceless name on alengthy contact management list. The press release would have been much moreeffective -- and polite -- had the writer learn to use the “blind copy”function on her e-mail program.

    Sadly, this particular e-mail is justone of many I receive that fall short in the civility department. I regularlyget e-mails without any salutations, as if writing “Dear Shari,” or “FromBob” would cause so much hand cramping. I get messages from total strangersasking me to forward “any extra research” I may have on a particular topic.I even had a woman from Philadelphia write and ask me to call her husband whowas upset after losing his job. What could I do? I’m not a lawyer,psychotherapist or headhunter. Besides, I don’t even know this person!

I’m not being rude if you can’t see me
    Thinking how casual and presumptuous some people are whenit comes to electronic communication, I came across Miss Manners’ book:“Miss Manners’ Basic Training: Communication,” (Crown Publishers, 1997),which includes contemporary “netiquette” guidelines. Although I rememberMiss Manners as being a bit cheeky, she does know her stuff, and I was curiouswhat advice she has regarding electronic communication.

    Opening the book, I read: “Cyberspace etiquette is, in away, etiquette in its purest form. No one can guess how old or rich orgood-looking or stylish anyone is; people can be judged only by the way theyrepresent themselves.”

    How true! To me, people who write solely in lower-caseletters appear timid. People who write without punctuation seem lazy. People whorequest things in an e-mail that they wouldn’t in person are pushy. And peoplewho respond belatedly to a message without referencing the original topic seemarrogant. As Miss Manners says, regardless of the setting, it has always beenrude to insult, ignore, bore, shout, intrude and offend others. Thus, eventhough e-mail involves distant and discontinuous communication, the same rulesfor avoiding rudeness should apply.

    For more specific guidelines on improving e-mailcommunication, I turn to Ms. Demeanor -- a.k.a., Mary Mitchell -- author of theappropriately named “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Business Etiquette,”(Macmillan & Company, 1999).

    Mitchell agrees people seem to express rudeness a lot morethan they used to -- especially online -- and she provides an explanation.First, the average businessperson is bombarded with so much information that intrying to keep up he or she forgets to be courteous. Second, the advent ofelectronic communication has reduced the amount of human-to-human contact.“This not only makes it easier to be rude, but we lose regular practice inbeing mannerly,” Mitchell says. Third, rudeness tends to beget rudeness. Youcall me an insensitive dolt and I’m not likely to compliment your new shoes.

Mind your e’s and @’s
   But while rudeness tends to multiply, each individual actof politeness also has a ripple effect. Consequently, if each one of us tries tobe a more conscientious online communicator, it can’t help but raise standardsthroughout cyberspace, right? (I know I’m sounding a bit like a Sunday schoolteacher, but it’s worth a shot.)

    Here, then, according to Mitchell, are some do’s anddon’ts when it comes to e-mail communication:


  • Beconcise, but not terse.
  • Respondas quickly to e-mail as you would answer telephone messages.
  • Avoid“flaming” or sending inflammatory messages.
  • Useclear, descriptive and current subject headings. If topics change, rewritethe subject line.
  • Usedates, salutations, proper punctuation and a friendly closing.


  • Makecomments or requests in an e-mail that you wouldn’t make in person.
  • Sendrepeat messages.
  • Useall capital letters, which is the online equivalent of SHOUTING!
  • Sendthe same message to a long distribution list.
  • Sendbad news via e-mail.

    Maybe the best thing to remember is that the relationshipyou have with someone online should mirror the relationship you have with thatperson in the real world. I can send dumb blonde jokes to my sister, but Iwouldn’t dare send them to Miss Manners.

Workforce, February 2000, Vol 79, No 2, pp. 31-33 SubscribeNow!

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