Digital Etiquette and the Definition of “Rude Communication”

seinfeld-phoneOver at the New York Times Technology blog “Bits” an article has emerged from Nick Bilton calling for an end to “time wasting forms of communication.” I recommend that readers take a look at the article and decide for themselves whether the points made by Bilton are valid. In fact, I recommend you do that first before proceedings with this post.

Now that you’ve read the article, I’ll proceed. On the one hand, I like this article because it correctly points out that the ways in which we communicate with each other have changed over the past few decades. The personal cell phone made telephone communication much easier and more efficient, and just about everyone has a cell phone today. However, new, stronger cell phones–“Smartphones”–that have the ability to connect to the internet have led to people using their phones to communicate with friends and loved ones through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media rather than verbal communication over a phone. Text messaging is also widely embraced by many cell phone users. For example, I find that if I have to make a phone call to someone, I will more than likely leave a text message rather than a voice message if I can’t get a hold of them. Under rare circumstances I will also send an email or a personal message on Facebook just to be safe.

Bilton suggests to us that some of the folks out there who haven’t embraced text messaging or social media should get their act together. To wit:

Some people are so rude. Really, who sends an e-mail or text message that just says “Thank you”? Who leaves a voice mail message when you don’t answer, rather than texting you? Who asks for a fact easily found on Google? Don’t these people realize that they’re wasting your time? Of course, some people might think me the rude one for not appreciating life’s little courtesies. But many social norms just don’t make sense to people drowning in digital communication.

And then there are the worst offenders of all: those who leave a voice mail message and then e-mail to tell you they left a voice mail message. My father learned this lesson last year after leaving me a dozen voice mail messages, none of which I listened to. Exasperated, he called my sister to complain that I never returned his calls. “Why are you leaving him voice mails?” my sister asked. “No one listens to voice mail anymore. Just text him.” My mother realized this long ago. Now we communicate mostly through Twitter.

In the age of the smartphone, there is no reason to ask once-acceptable questions: the weather forecast, a business phone number, a store’s hours. But some people still do. And when you answer them, they respond with a thank-you e-mail.

[Baratunde Thurston] said [that] people often asked him on social media where to buy his book, rather than simply Googling the question. You’re already on a computer, he exclaimed. “You’re on the thing that has the answer to the thing you want to know!”

I’m surprised Bilton didn’t take this further. What’s the point of taking out time to write a hand-written thank you letter to someone? That’s inefficient and, even more concerning, it costs money to pay for postage! What’s the point of going to a store to buy someone flowers or chocolate? That’s inefficient! Why are old people stuck in their inefficient ways of communicating? Stop being so inefficient, for crying out loud!

If you haven’t figured out my complaints by now, I should point out that I find it highly ironic that the New York Times selected a person to write about communication and etiquette who is so admittedly open about his poor communication skills and disrespectful etiquette. If my father called me twelve times and left me twelve voice messages and I told him that I didn’t listen to any of them, the only “lesson” would have been a severe reprimand from my parents the next time I saw them in person. What if something serious happened to a family member? What if something GREAT happened to a family member that was worth sharing? The fact of the matter is that not every communication is transferable through text or social media. Indeed, if something really terrible happened to a family member (God forbid), I would not want my Mom to tweet me about it.

If I’m communicating with somebody over the phone or in person and they ask me what the weather forecast for the day is or what a store’s hours are, I’ll give you the answer so that you don’t have to take extra time to Google it. If I don’t have an answer, I’ll use my smartphone to get you an answer so you don’t have to. If I’m on social media and someone asks me where they can hear me play double bass, for example, I’ll give them an answer, rather than telling them to Google it. If you call me and leave a voice message, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. If you send me a message on Facebook, I’ll get back to you. If you tweet me a question, I’ll get back to you. If you leave a comment on this blog, I’ll try to send you a bit of thanks when I get the chance. I do all of this because I appreciate the fact that people are taking time out of their busy day to communicate with me and that they trust me to get back in touch with them. I also understand that digital technology cannot eliminate other forms of communication that are extremely important to people all over the world. I try my best to help others via cell phone or social media whenever I am asked to do so, and I greatly appreciate those who help me on a daily basis. Am I perfect? Absolutely not. But I take pride in the fact that I am prompt in responding to those who get in contact with me and that I am able to communicate with people via telephone, social media, or…wait for it…face to face.

Sure, certain ways of communicating are inefficient. Some things just can’t be conveyed in a text message or a tweet. Other things don’t require communication on a phone. In the end, however, I find Bilton’s call to end time wasting forms of communication to be sorely wanting and slightly offensive, a term I don’t use lightly.