High-Tech Etiquette

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

Communication technology has made our lives a lot easier —and a lot more complicated at the same time. Although we can now reach virtually anyone in the world with relative ease 24 hours a day, we have also become a society of “communication junkies” who can’t be away from our e-mail or cell phones for even an hour without experiencing withdrawal. There is still, however, a right time, place, and method to use all this new equipment. Along with the technology comes a new set of rules, both written and unwritten, for decent behavior, as well as effective, appropriate communication.

Voice mail — Whether talking into a telephone answering machine, or voice mail system, your message should be brief and concise. Don’t ramble and take up precious time and disc space. Speak slowly and enunciate clearly so the listener can understand what you’re saying. Mention the date, time, and reason you’re calling. Always leave your full name and phone number, even if the other person already has your number. This saves that person the time of looking it up when returning your call. Recite the number slowly and clearly, including the area code. Then repeat it a second time so the other person doesn’t have to keep replaying your message to get the number. Be sure to mention when would be a good time to reach you to minimize telephone tag.

If you’re returning a call from someone you don’t know, state briefly what the call was about (if you know) to jog the other person’s memory. For example, you might say, “This is Carl Harris returning your phone call. You left me a message inquiring about guidelines for continuing education credits.”

Cell phones — While cell phones have become a boon to communication, they are, in many ways, the bane of our society. Of course the cell phone itself isn’t the problem: It’s the people who use them in inappropriate ways and places. One of the major annoyances is cell phone users speaking in a louder-than-normal voice. This is more than distracting and annoying; no one wants to be forced to hear personal and business conversations. Here are some simple rules to follow: Don’t have private or business conversations in public places within close proximity to other people. Turn your cell phone off or set it to “vibrate” during seminars/classes and while in restaurants, libraries, or places of worship. Don’t take calls during meetings, including interviews.

As a speaker, I often can’t get through even a short presentation without a cell phone going off and playing an inane tune. When it happens, I have to stop speaking because everyone’s attention is drawn to it. And so many people have phones with similar ring tones that often the offender doesn’t even realize it’s her phone ringing. Turn it off, put it on vibrate, or leave it home. If for some reason you truly need to be accessible at all times, get text messaging so you can see whether it’s an emergency or something that can wait. Unless you’re an expectant father or a high-ranking government official, the world will not end if someone leaves you a message rather than speaking with you immediately. You’ve got to set limits.

E-mail — Electronic mail has become so commonplace that many people rely on it heavily for communication. And while e-mail is fast, convenient, and appropriate for certain types of communication, it’s not OK for others. E-mail does not replace many traditional forms of communication. For example, an interview thank-you note should still be sent via snail mail in most cases. You should never resign from a job, discuss a sensitive subject, or respond in an angry way through e-mail. And since you don’t have the benefit of nonverbal communication cues when using e-mail, choose your words carefully before hitting the “send” button.

Some e-mail rules have changed over the years. Remember when it first came out? People used an informal writing style without capital letters, punctuation, or salutations. Today, because it is a dominant form of communication, you should write a work-related e-mail as if you were writing a letter or memo. Originally, the rule was that you don’t copy the sender’s message when responding. However, with all the e-mail correspondence sent today, it’s impossible to recall what you said to whom. I’ve received e-mail responses from people who say simply, “Yes. That’s great,” and I have no idea what they’re responding to. I have to go into my “sent” file and search for my last e-mail to them, if I even saved it. It’s time-consuming and annoying.

Because of all the computer viruses circulating today, don’t send attachments unless it’s something important and to someone whom you’ve told to expect it. Otherwise, you run the risk of having your message deleted without being read. Be sure to use clear subject lines, too, so the receiver knows whether to read your e-mail immediately or whether to delete it or save it.

Faxes — When sending a facsimile, use a cover sheet that clearly indicates who the fax is to and from. Unless requested to do so, don’t send lengthy documents via fax. A fax of five pages or more ties up the receiver’s fax machine, has a tendency to jam at one end or the other, and uses up a lot of paper on the receiving end. If you have a multipage document to send, consider mailing it.

Technology can be a great tool when used appropriately, but you’ll likely lose credibility when it’s apparent you’re playing with a new toy and haven’t learned “the rules.” Rather, enhance your image, your effectiveness, and your workplace savvy by learning and using communication technology in a responsible and considerate way.

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