We've come a long way—and yet we still misuse reply all. Catherine Newman addresses new rules of etiquette that Siri cannot.
Rule No. 1: Share carefully.
In these days of posting, tagging, and connecting widely and instantly, it can be hard to remember how that affects other people. But no matter the medium, the basics of courtesy are the same: Follow the Golden Rule. That means being kind, respectful, trustworthy, and gracious—and trying to spare people’s feelings. (And don’t embarrass anyone! Would you want someone to post a picture of you wiping out on the ice-skating rink?) When it comes to social media, bear in mind how perniciously innocent posts can spread—and how broad the scope of potential exclusion has become. Ask yourself, “Who might see this? And how would they feel?” One basic rule: Don’t post party pictures. People who weren’t invited might feel bad, the hosts might feel bad in turn, and other guests might have privacy issues. Plus, you don’t want your teetotaling grandma to see you doing Jell-O shots.
Rule No. 2: In a similar vein, when you notice on Facebook that your child was left out of a classmate’s birthday party, let it go.
Social media doesn’t just increase our risk of hurting others. We are also increasingly likely to know when we’re being excluded—and, worse, when our kids are. I won’t tell you to get a thicker skin. Sensitivity and courtesy go hand in hand, after all. But do try not to fret. Chances are good that the host’s intentions aren’t mean, and there may be factors you’re unaware of (for example, the climbing-gym max is six kids, or it’s an all-boy party). If your child feels hurt, consider this a teachable moment—one that helps her understand how it feels to be left out and that fosters resilience in the face of disappointment.
Rule No. 3: A thank-you text is OK for a dinner party, but don’t give up your stationery.
It’s tempting to send a (faster, emoji-filled) thank-you via smartphone or e-mail, but for most situations I confess to agreeing with old-school Emily Post. One should—still—err on the side of the written thank-you note. Someone took the time to give you a gift or offer his or her care. You can take the time to express your gratitude. That said, changing times call for changes to the rule, so here’s mine: Consider the gifter. A young person had you to dinner or gave you concert tickets? Sure, a grateful e-mail or text should do the trick. Your grandmother mailed you a hand-crocheted blanket? Dig up a stamp. Gray areas include baby gifts and condolence notes. Traditional etiquette recommends traditional note writing, but if you’re exhausted or grieving, just do your best. Your supporters are there to shore you up, not to keep tallies. And any thank-you is better than no thank-you at all.
Rule No. 4: If you want your friend to stop looking at her phone while you’re having dinner, model good behavior—conspicuously.
Remember when the only distractions at a restaurant were the loud talker at the next table and the over-eager server who really wants you to get dessert? Now there are the dings and the vibrations of phones. “Be present” is an overused mantra but an underlived one. If you don’t want your friends prioritizing their virtual connections over your flesh-and-blood friendship, say as you sit down, “It’s so great to see you. I’m turning off my phone so I make sure I can focus.” Or propose it as an idea: “Hey, we see each other so rarely. What do you think about ditching our phones while we have this time together?”
Rule No. 5: Model smart smartphone behavior around your kids, too.
Here’s what you want your children to hear you say: “Hang on a sec. Let me put my phone down so I can pay attention to what you’re telling me.” Minimizing distractedness won’t just encourage the kids to do the same; it will also radically enrich the quality of your time with them. If that text or e-mail can wait until later—until the kids are asleep, say, or you’re back at your desk—then let it. Consider creating no-tech zones in the house (bedrooms, the dinner table) or no-tech times (breakfast, ride to school, family game night). Get out of the habit of experiencing everything via your online documentation of it. (“Let’s not even bring our phones to the lake!”) Power off and be with your kids while you can because—sob!—they’ll be grown and gone before you know it.
Rule No. 6: Follow your teen on Instagram and Facebook if you like, but be as respectful as possible.
It’s natural to want to keep tabs, check up, and ascertain that nothing inappropriate or dangerous is happening, which is why you might choose to observe your child’s social-media life. But observe is the key word here. Don’t insert yourself into the conversation or make your presence otherwise obvious. We remember how it felt when our parents butted in or loitered too long when it came to our social lives, right? Don’t be that parent. And in the interest of trust, do be transparent with your child about your plans and intentions. The point is not to trap your kid in bad behavior—it’s to be a quiet, caring presence in the background.
Rule No. 7: But your babysitter’s Instagram posts are none of your business.
It can be unsettling to see pictures of her (or him) doing something (off duty, of course) that you don’t totally approve of. But assuming the photo doesn’t show her murdering anyone—just doing the Electric Slide while wearing a lampshade on her head—then look away. And try not to be too moralizing. A responsible child-care worker is free to spend her off hours as she chooses. She should probably have the good sense to hide such posts, of course, but if her carousing is not affecting her work, chalk it up to social-media TMI and keep scrolling.
Rule No. 8: There’s a right way and a wrong way to video your preschooler’s graduation.
As comedian Louis CK puts it, parents’ devices end up blocking their vision of their actual child: “The resolution on the kid is unbelievable if you just look. It’s totally HD.” If you must capture the moment on your phone instead of just in your memory, move to the side of the venue and do your recording from there. (This goes for concerts and sporting events, too.) A parent trying to watch her precious Orphan No. 7 in a middle-school production of Oliver Twist doesn’t want to do it through a tiny screen focused on someone else’s kid.
Rule No. 9: Don’t extend a friend request to your boss.
Or your clients. Or your children’s teachers—without first checking with the school, which may have rules that you should obey. You don’t want professional contacts scrolling through your Bermuda vacation or ogling your daughter’s rhythmic-gymnastics performance. If they pursue you, however, and “no” feels impolitic, then adjust your account preferences to maintain a boundary between work and life. Then share selectively.
Rule No. 10: The sender can see that you’ve opened the Evite. RSVP right away.
Of course you’ll need to look at your calendar and check in with your plus one. Beyond that, though, there’s no reason not to respond ASAP. (Unless you’re waiting to see if a better offer comes along, which is—sorry!—just plain rude.) Figure out if you’re attending, then let the party throwers know so that they can plan accordingly. And if you’re declining? No need to write a dissertation about your busy social life. “So sorry we can’t make it. Have fun!” is plenty.