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Good manners in an electronic age

I am often exasperated by people texting, messaging and emailing during meetings, or worse, taking phone calls. It’s a real issue for newer members of the workforce who may have developed the habit of using their phone or laptop anytime anywhere. Some thoughtful people worry that the remoteness and lack of humanity shown by some intra-office emailers (flaming someone whose desk is ten metres away) will spread into broader human interaction. No doubt some workplaces and some people will fall into that behavioural mode, but then again, look at how quickly it’s become commonplace in some countries for smokers to no longer inflict their habit on others in the workplace, pub or home, evolving through asking permission to now taking themselves outside. That societal pressure to adopt better behaviour is called “good manners”.

On starting my first job I was given a list of explicit do’s and don’ts. I was also assigned a “buddy” whose primary role was to answer my newby questions and to teach me the unwritten rules. Some were quasi-political (eg. interacting with the powerful or the quirky), but most were just good manners. Those rules evolved over time, as did society and the workplace. Some fell by the wayside, some new ones become part of the norm.

Here are a few technology manners:
  • Switch your phone to silent in meetings (and other shared events), and don’t take or make calls (unless you’ve told everyone that you really are expecting an truly urgent call, and apologised beforehand; to make or receive the call, leave the room so people can carry on without you disturbing them).
  • Likewise, don’t check (or answer) your text messages, email or voicemail during a meeting or when talking to someone (in person or on the phone).
  • Don’t browse the internet or do other online tasks when in a meeting or talking to someone, unless it is something related to the meeting, with the intention of sharing it during the meeting with all others present (eg. tweeting during a conference is often encouraged). An exception is co-workers talking casually while doing their normal job, but if it turns into a proper conversation, stop one thing or the other.
  • Don’t text or email someone more than twice in one "conversation". After that, call them.
  • Don’t copy all and sundry on email, and don’t play the “I’ve copied your boss” game on emails. If you have a gripe, say so, and if necessary, approach the boss, ideally together, with a clear complaint and options.
  • If someone complains to you in a text message, email or voicemail, call them.
  • Don’t use foul, intemperate, offensive or defamatory language (or pictures) in business communication, including email, text messages, voicemail and phone calls. Mild swearing is acceptable in voice conversations between mates, but don’t inflict it loudly on others within earshot.
  • Don't post gripes on "in-house"  matters on public social media.  That's unprofessional and  unacceptable.
How to enforce these? First and foremost, demonstrate them in your own behaviour. And tell people when they join that these are part of the way things get done around here. If someone breaks the rules, tell them politely, briefly and firmly not to do it. Usually that’s all it takes.

The basic principle? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The people who give you their time deserve your undivided personal attention, and vice versa.  And always interact with people as if they are with you in person.

First posted February 17th, 2009