The end of etiquette

Technology has changed the tools we use to communicate with each other, but not much else.

When mobile phones were first introduced, industry experts predicted that they would enable us to communicate more effectively, but experience shows that the main result is an increase in the time many people spend idly gossiping. It’s the same with text messaging and emails: technologies that offer the potential to transform our lives are wasted on chatter.

So why is it that, in the business world, our major complaints are about poor communications, a lack of communications and sheer anger when we can’t get an answer from someone when it’s easier than at any time in history to reach people by car, letter, phone, fax, mobile, text and email?

And why are so many of us bogged down in hundreds, and sometime thousands, of emails which are impossible to manage?

Is it because emails are instant that we have abandoned the etiquette that used to govern slower forms of communication and replaced it with – nothing.

With people in business receiving so many emails, it is difficult to devote enough time to addressing every issue they raise. It would be easier if the sender outlined what the email was about and what response was required by saying in the subject line:

“need decision on new project today, please”

This would enable the recipient to realise that it was an important email requiring immediate action. It would also help the recipient to manage the email as one of tens or hundreds of others.

Often, important emails go unanswered because they are unmanaged and the recipients are unaware that they are being asked to take action. Perhaps an email is a composite of six or seven messages which have ping-ponged between correspondents, who each added a few paragraphs before sending it on again. Because it has not been composed by one person, the information it contains may be hidden in the to and fro banter over many paragraphs. Such emails can be dangerous as business communications, because their purpose is unclear and the various participants may have a different understanding of what is happening. Although there may be instances where this form of email could be useful for general discussion, it is not appropriate for discussing specific activities requiring precise answers and actions. Such emails become the electronic form of committee meetings which after hours of talk produce no clear action.

When an email we send has not been answered or the recipient tells us that they are unaware of its contents, we can become annoyed. We feel that our email is important, but forget that it is probably just one of hundreds received, with no way of indicating its real importance. Recipients don’t just have to deal with genuine emails, but also SPAM emails. We get used to deleting these unsolicited emails without answering them, purely for security reasons, and this goes against our natural instinct to reply. As a result, ignoring people becomes natural. For the right reasons, we adopt undesirable behaviour.

We can also become annoyed when we put extra effort into doing something to help someone out, send it off and never receive any thanks. Should we put ourselves out again for such a rude person?

The reality is that current email usage does not promote clarity or courtesy. Email is an instant medium (theoretically) and can be very effective when used with consideration.

When we receive an important email, why not send a response consisting solely of subject line message saying:

“Received. It’s great, thanks. Please delete”.

Such an email:

  • shows you have received what was sent
  • acknowledges that you appreciate it
  • thanks the sender
  • reminds them to delete the message to help manage their inbox
  • ends this matter, enabling them to move on.

Without an ‘end’ to every matter we deal with, all these issues clutter up our email inboxes and our minds, dragging our productivity down and pumping up our stress levels. By closing an issue and removing it from our mental list of priorities, we free ourselves to move on to our next priority.

Some technologies offer us fantastic benefits, but we need to develop or adapt a suitable etiquette so that they work for us, rather than we work the way the technologies dictate.

But we can’t do this in isolation; everyone must apply a similar approach and recognise that not every email they send is top priority, otherwise the same problems will persist.

We must understand that not everything we do is more important that what other people are doing. Perhaps then, we can start enjoying the real benefits of our marvellous communications technologies.

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