How to Be the Best (Digital) Version of Yourself
Real Simple's experts decode "netiquette" to help you be as polite online as you are in real life.
I have some friends who include me in group texts. When people reply to the group text, my phone pings at work. These people either do not realize or do not care how rude it is to carry on a conversation with the original texter while 10 other people are on the line. How do I politely text my friends to remove me from the group so that I am not included in other exchanges? — G.M.
Texting is tricky, since it isn't possible to control who sends you incoming messages. To stem the tide during one of these group-texting flurries, you'll have to send a text that explains your concern. Simply say, "Would you mind removing me from these group conversations? I have to keep my phone on at work, and all this pinging is distracting."
If you prefer to be less direct, you could make a recommendation that the group abandon the practice of "reply all." (I imagine that others in the group would appreciate that suggestion.)
And if the pinging continues unabated? Consider turning off the sound on text alerts; tell the people who need to reach you to call you instead. Or establish clearer parameters with your friends. Explain that you're hoping not to receive any messages while you're at your job. It's really not a bad thing for someone to have to think twice before hitting Send.
- Catherine Newman
Chronic texters are taking over. When is it OK to speak up and tell them to stop? — Name withheld by request
I was out for a sushi dinner recently with three girlfriends, happily engrossed in a power session of gossip and catch-up when, somewhere between the miso soup and the spicy tuna rolls, I noticed the friend across from me had her head down and was staring into her lap. It took only a second for me to realize that, duh, she wasn't about to cry; she was on her BlackBerry. By this point, the others had figured it out, too, and we entered into that awkward but now commonplace practice of downgrading to small talk and vamping until our friend rejoined us and real conversation could resume.
OK, I live in this universe. I get that in some circles this has become the norm. Which is why I decided not to say anything to my friend in that moment. I may hate the fact that the world has gone text-crazy, but I also don't want to be the uptight schoolmarm, slapping someone on the wrist and possibly killing the good vibe at dinner. (Who does?)
But then, a few weeks later, I was out with my husband and another couple and the man did the same thing. Again, there was no "Sorry, this is an emergency" or "Sorry, this will just take a second." It was presumed that we would all look the other way. This time, though, I decided to bite the bullet and comically (and adorably, I hoped) cleared my throat with a big "Achem!" He looked up at me, startled, then smiled sheepishly and said, "Sorry, sorry." At which point, his wife chimed in with "Yeah, put that thing away!" He didn't touch it for the rest of the meal.
Now, I certainly haven't been as bold in every texting situation since then. And the truth is, I'm genuinely conflicted about whether or not to raise the issue. Since it has become standard behavior, many people don't consider it rude, so it can feel rude to call them on it. But my experience with that couple taught me that, odds are, someone at every table is just as irritated as you are but doesn't have the nerve to speak up—until someone else does. Which gives me hope, because I feel like we have this small window of time right now when we can actually do something to stop the madness. To me, pecking at a phone or a BlackBerry midmeal or midconversation should be considered as outrageous as lighting up a cigarette without asking first. It's just not done. Maybe I should have taken a cue from the no-smoking movement at the dinner with my girlfriends and announced at the start, "Can we make this a device-free meal? I'm allergic." That way, if someone did need to send a message, she might at least have made a request or an apology first. I would also urge people to pull the coy "Achem!" trick, thereby raising some texting-consciousness, if not eliminating the problem. As it stands, we've all gotten used to looking the other way when someone starts texting—as if they're picking their teeth. It's a little embarrassing for everyone.
- Julie Rottenberg
At work, I'll often e-mail colleagues to ask simple yes or no questions. After each reply, should I send an e-mail saying "thank you"? I don't want to add to anyone's in-box, but I feel like I should acknowledge that I received—and appreciate—the response. — B.D.
I love that you are doubly thoughtful: eager to express your thanks and mindful of people's time. I would say—and the etiquette community agrees—that it's always best to err on the side of gratitude. That means sending a quick thanks when someone does you a favor or responds to your request.
You may fear that you are clogging someone's e-mail box, but most of us aren't too busy to read the words "thank you." And that flash of recognition can reassure a helpful someone that her message was just what you needed (and spare her the need to follow up with you).
Your question fascinates me, though, since it taps into a bigger issue: the way our culture of extreme busyness has people giving up graciousness in the name of industry. In my opinion, a world too frenetic to maintain even the most basic niceties is one we should probably try our best to change.
- Catherine Newman
How do you handle an e-mail faux pas—or prevent one from happening? — Name withheld by request
Not long ago, I received an annoying e-mail from a colleague, and in a moment of crankiness I'm not proud of, I added my own catty remark and forwarded it to a friend. Moments later, the original sender wrote me back, confused and asking, "Was that a joke?" My heart dropped down to my feet in horror; apparently I had hit Reply instead of Forward (a rookie mistake, I know). I panicked, unsure if I should admit my error and apologize or go with the "Ha-ha-ha! Of course I was kidding!" approach, which seemed less hurtful, albeit dishonest. I ultimately decided to take the fall and own up to my comment, admitting my colleague had brought up a topic I was touchy about, and she was game enough not to take offense.
I got off relatively easy, but most people aren't that lucky. A friend of mine accidentally sent an e-mail to her mother that was intended for her husband that read, "My &@*!@ mother is driving me &@*!@ insane!!!!" (And, no, she didn't use punctuation marks in her e-mail.) I can hear the sound of daughters and mothers alike, cringing across the planet. That e-mail sparked an enormous fight, and incredibly, mother and daughter have not spoken since.
Another friend had the misfortune of receiving an e-mail meant for someone else, which attacked a book he had written. In that case, my friend chose not to confront the sender, which means he's now walking around with information he shouldn't have, while the sender is walking around blissfully unaware that her true feelings about his book were made known. These nightmare stories, combined with my own, have led me to follow this rule to the letter: Never put anything in an e-mail you wouldn't be happy to have read on the evening news (or The Daily Show).
In fact, let's take it a step further and say that using e-mail for just about anything other than logistical planning can be deadly. It was only recently that a friend told me that something I had written her years ago, which was meant to offer support during a difficult time, had upset her. At first I was shocked; I thought I had sent a purely positive message. But hearing it from her perspective, I could understand how one sentence I wrote might have hit her the wrong way. In e-mail, a dropped comma or an innocent attempt at humor can end up relaying the opposite of the message you intended, alienating the very person you're trying to appease.
If you are angry or upset or want to apologize for something, resist the temptation to unload it all into an e-mail. Instead, pick up the phone or speak in person. Sure, it's scarier, but trust me—in the end, you'll save yourself a lot of stomach acid. You'll both get more information by hearing each other's voices. And if there are any hurt feelings, you can address them right away, as opposed to having them fester in electronic hurt-feelings Siberia.
- Julie Rottenberg
When is it more appropriate to call someone rather than text or email? — Name withheld by request
Well, for starters, when you're desperately missing your old friends. Or at least that's what I thought one recent afternoon, when I decided to call some pals from my hometown. Although my kitchen phone was coated with dust (according to the LED readout, the last call had come in eight days earlier), I persevered. I dialed and...Jennifer wasn't home—no machine, either. Stephanie couldn't talk just then. And when I reached Tina, she sounded alarmed: "Is something the matter?" she asked. "Why are you calling me?"
Why indeed? It was a good question. After all, many people exclusively e-mail or text family and friends. Some teens barely know how to talk on their cell phones. And in a few years those of us who still have land lines will probably use them for emergencies only (say, in those bleak moments when the wireless network goes offline). Not long from now, I imagine, it will be considered rude to interrupt someone's day by ringing her up. Until then, here are a few simple guidelines for knowing when it's important to make the call:
You have really bad news: Of course, you would never send a group text that announced, for example, "OMG, uncle Hank is dead." But you might consider e-mailing about lesser misfortunes (a lost job, a car accident). Don't. Deliver your message by phone, so that people can clearly discern the tone of your voice and your mood. That way, they'll better know how to react.
Not sure what qualifies as bad news? I would say that anything that is liable to cause someone worry or heartache falls into this category, whereas merely annoying occurrences (a rotten day at work, your husband's migraine) do not. You have really good news. Did your son win that college scholarship? Did your house bid go through? Instead of making loved ones wait until they check their e-mail—or find out via Facebook—go ahead and call. The caveat here is that the information should warrant genuine excitement, so stick to texting when your favorite singer wins on American Idol.
You're trying to reach a "phone person": You know the type, whether it's your Luddite pal from college or your great-grandmother: She doesn't know how to text, she never checks e-mail (last you saw, she still had a CompuServe account), and she always picks up the phone when she wants to reach you. Sure, you can try to ease her into the modern age by texting her a non-urgent request along the lines of "meet 4 coffee tomrrw?" But if she fails to reply "Starbux at 10 am," do her a favor and dial instead.
Your mother is involved: Yes, even if she is completely comfortable with texting. Even if she regularly uses emoticons in her e-mails. Even if she has her own Facebook page. Why? She's your mother—that's why. And she just likes to hear your voice.
- Michelle Slatalla
Want to ask your own etiquette question? Submit your social conundrums. Selected letters will be featured on the website.