In both its spoken and written forms, the English language is constantly evolving. Grammar - the system and structure that underpin communications - and linguistics - the science of its study - can help us make sense of these shifts and changes. We talk with experts in each field about the quirks, foibles, understanding and glory of the written and spoken word.
As the Internet becomes an integral part of our social interactions and professional communications, it’s ushering in a new etiquette for behavior both online and off. But the new social order has left both technophiles and technophobes scratching their heads about what constitutes polite behavior. Is it appropriate to send an email only to say “thanks”? Does anyone still check their voice mail? And do all invitations necessitate an RSVP? Kojo looks at how technology is redefining good manners.
- James Hirschfeld professor of sociology and director of the Center for Social Science Research, George Mason University
- James Witte co-founder, Paperless Post.
- Daniel Post Senning New York Times columnist; author, "Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide To Manners"
- Henry Alford author, "Manners In A Digital World, Living Well Online"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's "Tech Tuesday." In the analogue days, having good manners was simple. Look people in the eye when you address them. Identify yourself when picking up the phone, and keep your napkin in your lap at the dinner table. But, as more of our interactions move online, the internet is redefining the rules of polite behavior. And navigating the new social order can be daunting to technophiles and technophobes alike.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIs it polite to Google people before meeting them, or for that matter, after you've met them? Can a simple courtesy email actually be rude? And are you obligated to RSVP to each and every online invitation? What if it's on customized digital stationary? Here to discuss etiquette in the digital age is James Witte. He's a Professor of Sociology at George Mason University. He directs the Center for Social Science Research. James Witte joins us in studio. Thank you for joining us.
MR. JAMES WITTEYou're very welcome. Pleased to be here.
NNAMDIJoining us from NPR Studios in Bryant Park, NY is Henry Alford. He is a New York Times columnist and author of the book titled, "Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners." Henry Alford, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. HENRY ALFORDThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vermont, is Daniel Post Senning. He is an etiquette expert with the Emily Post Institute. He's also author of the book called, "Manners In a Digital World, Living Well Online." Daniel Post Senning, thank you for joining us.
MR. DANIEL POST SENNINGGood morning, Kojo. It's good to be with you.
NNAMDIGood to have you. You too can join this "Tech Tuesday" conversation. Give us a call. 800-433-8850. How do you think technology has redefined good manners, if at all? You can also send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet at kojoshow. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there. James Witte, experts on manners might think that proper etiquette does not depend on the whims of society or advances in technology. So, is it right to say that new technology can actually redefine what is good behavior in the first place? Or is technology making bad behavior more commonplace?
WITTEOh, I would say it's definitely -- you gotta consider the technology. You know, that's happened over the course of history. And I think where we have to steer ourselves is in between some kind of technology, technological determinism, and/or a cultural determinism. You know, the two are interacting with one another. You know, culture doesn't have a life of its own, and neither does technology. They play off each other.
NNAMDISo, we are at, in a way, the intersection of culture and technology?
NNAMDITrying to determine which way to go.
NNAMDIDaniel Post Senning, your great, great grandmother Emily Post was famous for her writings on etiquette, said, and I'm quoting here, one's manner is personality. The outward manifestation of one's inner character and attitude toward life. What do you think we can draw from traditional ideas of good manners when we start asking, what is appropriate behavior in the digital environment?
SENNINGWell, from the perspective of a five generation family business that's been thinking about etiquette for almost 100 years, I'd like to affirm what my co-panelists just said. There's an absolute interplay between new technologies as they emerge and cultures, or fundamental culture. At the same time, I think that the substance of human relationships are enduring, and there are aspects of the human interaction that do remain remarkably similar no matter who we are, where we're born, what time, what place.
SENNINGAnd those common aspects of human interaction definitely gives some framework for the specific manners and cultures that emerge that facilitate our good interactions. So, while the details are constantly changing and shifting, I do think there's a heart to good etiquette that we can count on, that does transition, and moves from generation to generation. And gives us a through line that is worth paying attention to.
NNAMDIHenry Alford, many of the social norms of the digital age don't seem to have much precedent in traditional etiquette. You've documented a few of these in your New York Times column, and in your books, and sometimes you sound, well, outright perplexed at the changing manners. Why do you think this new etiquette can be confusing?
ALFORDWell, as both of these gentlemen have said, the technology, sometimes, presents options for ways to behave. And so I think that for those of us who are slower or late adopters, you know, who are a little bit late to the techno party, we have to realize, oh, that's why that person knows all about me when I'm meeting them for the first time. They saw my name on a list and they Googled me before we even showed up at the restaurant. You know, so I shouldn't be offended.
ALFORDThat's just something that a young, modern person might do. Or, oh, that person isn't going to write back, thank you, after I've provided some information that he requested of me, because that's someone who's very busy. And so, again, I shouldn't be offended by it. But, I sort of am.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you mentioned that, because New York Times Technology Reporter Nick Bilton recently claimed that this has led to a lot of unnecessary communication, the fact that technology makes communication easier. And that this unnecessary communication is just wasting everyone's' time. He actually thinks it's rude for someone to send an email that simply says, thank you.
ALFORDIt's just that...
NNAMDIPlease go ahead, Daniel Post Senning.
SENNINGI just would love to jump in, because I helped Nick Bilton put his foot in his mouth on that one.
NNAMDISo I heard.
SENNINGWe were talking, and he was bringing up a legitimate question of courtesy in the new digital environment, which is an environment where people are really working to manage the flow of information that's going on around them all the time. Trying to decipher what matters and what doesn't. And for a younger generation that lives in that space, separating the wheat from the chaff is one of the tasks they have every day. And I think Nick's right to point out that there's a certain courtesy operating in the digital space of being aware that the people that you're interacting with have that as one of the roles that they're playing.
SENNINGAt the same time, I would go back to the idea that there are some traditional etiquettes, some things that, although the form changes, the substance stays the same. And showing appreciation, expressing gratitude is so fundamentally important, both to us as individuals, and to relationships. That figuring out a way to sustain that appreciation, that expression of gratitude as we transition into these new technologies, is important. And Nick got some real pushback from many of his colleagues, even in the editorial room at the New York Times, who were aghast that he would think that, much less write it down and put it in the paper.
SENNINGIt was great fodder for discussion, but really, what we're looking at, is how to take the best of what we've done forward into these new spaces. And maybe that's just a step too far, to say it's not important to thank people. Maybe it's keep your thanks short. Keep them in the appropriate medium, but expressing thanks is still a fundamental tenant of good etiquette. And I'd love to find ways to keep that happening.
NNAMDIJames Witte, Daniel is exactly right. Nick Bilton got a whole lot of flak for that. Some accused him of being a millennial who was impatient and self entitled. But I'd like to raise a broader question. If two generation tend to disagree about what is rude and what is not, how do you decide who's right?
WITTEI don't think it's a matter of who's right. You know, I think with, as we're seeing, American society is becoming more diverse, right? And part of this diversity is this technology divide. And the way to get across diversity is sort of a cultural awareness. And I think that's gotta happen both from the younger folks, and not just the younger folks. I mean, there are a few of us, a little bit older, who are kind of tech savvy. But we have to understand the rules and behavior of people who are less adept, less familiar and maybe less willing to accept the new technologies.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, it's a "Tech Tuesday" conversation on "Netiquette," manners in the digital age. We're talking with James Witte. He's a Professor of Sociology at George Mason University who directs the Center For Social Science Research. Daniel Post Senning is an Etiquette Expert with the Emily Post Institute. He's also author of the book, "Manners In a Digital World, Living Well Online." And Henry Alford is a New York Times columnist and author of a book titled, "Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That, A Modern Guide to Manners."
NNAMDIWe're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think a courtesy email is a sign of good behavior or bad? Do you still leave voicemails and do you respond to all online invitations that ask for an RSVP? Give us a call. 800-433-8850, or you can RSVP by text at kojoshow. Or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Some consider it impolite to send an email or text asking a question that Google could answer. It inspired a site called, Let Me Google That For You, which describes itself as, quoting here, for all those people that find it more convenient to bother you with their question rather than Google it for themselves.
NNAMDIIs there any happy medium between the cynical, impatient millenials and their over communicating elders? Daniel Post Senning?
SENNINGI would love to think so. One of the responses I often get, when I'm talking about etiquette with audiences, people will say, boy, this sounds like such common sense. Or, it sounds like the Golden Rule. You should really do unto others as they would do unto you. And I recently learned an evolution of the Golden Rule that I really like. The Platinum Rule. And it goes like this. Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. And I think it really helps take into account that increasing diversity and complexity of the world that we live in that you've been talking about.
SENNINGAnd, to me, etiquette's about other peoples' perceptions of us. And keeping an awareness of that, and maybe even deferring a bit to account for and accommodate the perspective of others is important. And being aware of that generational divide, or the technological divide, is one way that we can bring that awareness of others' perspectives into our interactions.
NNAMDIThe voicemail also seems to reveal a generational divide on etiquette, with so much of our communication through text. Some people see voicemail as inefficient. Allow me to go to Roger in Tacoma Park, who I think would like to raise this issue. Roger, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROGERWell, thank you very much. Basically, my question is why won't a young person send a -- make a phone call anymore? It seems to be always text message, text messages. My son, Matthew, won't make a phone call, even if it will take 45 minutes or two hours to get a message back and forth that would take 30 seconds over the phone. And I'll take it off the air. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Daniel, some young people, like his son Matthew, I think, see voicemail as inefficient. Does it make it bad behavior to leave a message after the tone, or does it depend on who's on the receiving end?
SENNINGI think it really does depend on who's on the receiving end. Some people aren't even gonna listen to that voicemail. And, in fact, you might even see it as an affirmation that you're in their inner circle, that they just see that you've called and responded. That's enough for many people.
SENNINGThere's a reverse courtesy. And I experience this with my own father, where he's learning to keep his phone discussions a little quicker and shorter. And that entices me to make that phone call a little more often, and I would never text my father. He wouldn't know how to receive it or get that message. So, I think about him when I think about how I'm gonna communicate. What medium is the most appropriate? But absolutely. There's two sides to the voicemail divide. Or even the make a phone call divide. And maybe the older generations, people are more familiar with that medium, can learn to keep it a little quicker.
SENNINGOftentimes, people in the mobile environment are wanting to keep calls short. At the same time, I encourage people who are always texting to remember that there is much more human information when you include the sound of someone's voice. Their tone, their inflection, pause and speed of delivery, all communicate a great deal. And learning how to continue to engage those skills is important to maintain.
NNAMDIHenry Alford, I must admit I find texting more efficient, but should I be concerned if it annoys other people, if other people think it's less mannerly than making a phone call or responding to my voicemail.
SENNINGIt's worth being aware of. Yeah.
ALFORDTo my mind, there's a communications hierarchy that sort of goes up the scale, in terms of intimacy. Face to face contact obviously being the most intimate. A phone call being the second, and then so on down the line from email down to text down to a message on Facebook. Down to bury a note under a rock in the ground.
ALFORDAnd so I think that what you need to -- I think that etiquette dictates that you meet the incoming vehicle at the same level or higher, so that if someone emails you, you've got to either email them back or call them back. But I think if someone emails you, and then you leave a message for them on Facebook, or something equally oblique, then I think that is cause for offense.
SENNINGThat's brilliant, Henry. Brilliant.
WITTEBut I would add a couple other dimensions. You know, I think when you're talking about the intimacy of a face to face communication is different from say a text message. One way to think about that is bandwidth. And these different devices that we're using, including face to face, have different affordances, and bandwidth is one of them. Synchronicity is another. You know, whether it's -- immediate reaction is possible or not. Ease of input. You know, I think with text messaging, Siri is a huge revolution, because we can now dictate our text messages.
WITTEWe're gonna see more text messaging, I think, particularly from people who are less adept with these mobile keyboards. You know, so I think getting a general perspective on devices and the way we communicate through them can help us understand how we best manage this technology divide, and maintain our humanity in our interactions with one another.
NNAMDIGotta take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. If you'd to, the number is 800-433-8850. Do you think digital natives have a different conception of good manners than the generations before them? Who would you say is right? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's "Tech Tuesday," and we're talking about manners in a digital age, "Netiquette." We're talking with Henry Alford. He's a New York Times Columnist, author of the book, "Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide To Manners." Daniel Post Senning is an Etiquette Expert with the Emily Post Institute. He's author of the book, "Manners In a Digital World, Living Well Online." And James Witte is a Professor of Sociology at George Mason University. He directs the Center for Social Science. We got an email from Constance in Silver Spring who says, when I don't get a thank you email or an email acknowledging my contribution or completed assignment, I wonder whether the recipient has actually gotten my email.
NNAMDILots of things can happen in cyberspace, including me sometimes getting the email address wrong, and needing to send the requested information again. So, I hope people continue to send thank you emails. If they don't, I might be reluctant to do them favors in the future. Jason tweeted that etiquette is all about showing deference to the recipient. And Tanya in Woodley Park emails, if someone repeatedly misspells your name in an email, should you correct them? Daniel Post Senning?
SENNINGAbsolutely. Helping someone else avoid the embarrassment or the awkwardness of getting a name wrong is an absolute courtesy. So, help them get your name right.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We go to Diane in Washington, D.C. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANEGreetings, Kojo, and all your panelists. It's good to talk with you this afternoon. I perceive this more as a generational issue than a digital/technical issue. I have a small company, and I just delivered my holiday gifts. And year after year, the same thing happens. I will receive, you know, an email note, probably from people who are my generation, which are baby boomers. And those who are younger, either millenials or even generation X, probably won't even acknowledge. And I find it puzzling. I find it puzzling, because these are sensibly people who have been raised by my generation.
DIANESo, where did the disconnect happen? I would prefer to understand it than to pass judgment or blame it.
NNAMDIWell, frankly Diane, it's clearly all your fault.
DIANEProbably cause I'm not sending what they like. But I also encourage them to tell me...
NNAMDINo, it's not.
DIANEYou know, like, tell me honestly, do you not like chocolate?
NNAMDINo. Henry Alford, I'll start with you. Is there, in fact, a generational gap here?
ALFORDI think there probably is, and that's where I would encourage Diane to consider that the thank you note has a different valance for different generations. I, too, expect a thank you note any time I do something nice for someone. But, you're not always gonna get that from people in their twenties. And I don't think that you should allow your wistfulness or your pain at not receiving that email or a card to affect your relationship with those people. I think they're just operating from a different system.
WITTEYeah, and I would add, though, that if it's someone you have a close relationship, doing a little repair work, you know, good interaction requires both sides. And gently correcting. You know, sort of saying, oh, did you get that or not? Sort of teaching people the rules of crossing these generational or technology divides, I think, is going to help on both sides.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Diane. And while we are on that topic, allow me to go, I think, to Evan in Alexandria, Virginia. Evan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EVANHi Kojo. First time caller.
EVANAlways listen to your show when I can. Hey, I'm D.O.D. contractor, work on several projects, have several project managers. They send me weekly reminders to accomplish this task or another. And when I send the reply, they always send me a thank you note. I kind of would like to know what is a polite way to stop it, because I receive up to 30 emails per hour, and it's (unintelligible) taxpayers dollars for me to open each one of them and review it. So, I think it's just a huge waste of their time and mine.
DIANEBut I don't know of a polite way to say it to them. And same goes for reply all emails. When a manager sends an email to his entire team asking to provide individual information, I don't need to know what the other team member's providing to my manager, so I'd like somebody to comment on that.
NNAMDIDaniel Post Senning, you advise Nick Bilton. Now please advise Evan.
SENNINGAs we found out earlier talking about Nick Bilton at the New York Times, who shares your sentiment, almost word for word. You just want to tread carefully. This is a -- it's funny that the question of how to express thanks is coming up as a generational question, cause I'll tell you that my mother's generation got this question, my grandmother's generation got this question, my great grandmother's generation got this question, that every generation wonders how it's gonna communicate to the next generation. The importance of doing this.
SENNINGHow do you model it? How do you draw that out of them? And somehow, the good news is that it does continue to renew itself. It does keep happening. Because it is so important, because it does continue to come up as one of the fundamental cornerstones of good etiquette, it's OK to ask people not to thank you. Particularly for specific tasks, work related tasks, things that you feel are part of your job, anyway. You can simply explain that it's part of the management of that email for you, and that while you genuinely appreciate their thanks, you would also really appreciate them helping you manage the volume of correspondence you're dealing with.
SENNINGAnd I said this to Nick at the time. I said, if you made that request of me, I think part of me having good etiquette would be to honor that request, to not impose my understanding of expressing gratitude, being so important, on you, in this particular environment. Although I would remind Evan, learning how to receive thank yous and receive gifts well is an important skill in life. And there isn't a huge cost to it, and it makes people feel so good and it is so important to building relationships. If you can, just file it in your mind as you're welcome. Thank yous don't require thank yous. The chain does stop after someone thanks someone.
SENNINGAnd chalk it up to those people wanting to do something for you, if you can.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Evan. We move on to Alice in Washington, D.C. Alice, your turn.
ALICEHi there. I empathize with Diane because I'm also a boomer, but my godson posted something recently about how punctuation can affect the meaning the very period at the end of a sentence can make it, make the tone of the sentence change. And my question is how is it -- the panelists see that technology is changing communication per se, not just simply that the adaptors are using it differently. But that they are, in fact, being forced by the technology. When you put a period in a text, it will make it seem like an ugly message. So, I was curious about that.
NNAMDIHenry Alford, I'll start with you on this one.
ALFORDWell, I think that we've all come to love and respect the punctuation mark. That's probably one of the chief results of the internet. Yeah, there's just such a dead eyed, dead fish quality to the internet, so yeah, I think tone is really difficult for a lot of people who are emailing or texting. I think, yeah, it's much better to come off sounding way too peppy and overexcited by using too many exclamation points than not enough. And I think, on the flip side, the reader's side, you, again, you just have to extend the benefit of the doubt.
ALFORDYes, that -- the one I get all the time is the email that reads simply, sure. S-U-R-E. That reads so sarcastic to me. It just looks like an F you, to me. But, you just have to imagine, OK, that person really means, sure, it means certainly. Yes. Absolutely. So, you've gotta extend the -- you've gotta extend yourself.
WITTEYeah, and I think also, you know, I use punctuation as a way to signal the seriousness of a message. If it's a quick email, I often don't capitalize or punctuate, because I want the reader to know this is just an email. It's a quick reply, and if it's a serious email, then I run a spell check. Or I punctuate carefully. But it's again a way to signal to the recipient, you know, how much weight do you give this particular message? And again, that's a way to exploit the limited bandwidth of an email/text communication to pack in some extra meaning.
NNAMDIDaniel Post Senning, I'd like to go in a slightly different direction with you, because a lot of us still write emails, as though we were writing letters. We start by addressing the recipient with a greeting like, dear so and so. We end with a polite closing along the lines of, best regards, or the aforementioned thank you. Why do you think some aspects of traditional etiquette still persist in these new technological or digital communications?
SENNINGI think there's a good two/three part answer to the question. The first is illustrated just by our panelists today, talking about all the different impressions they can get from slight variations in capitalization, punctuation.
SENNINGIf you're ever concerned, you can always add that capitalization, that punctuation as a way to bring clarity and certainty. If you're talking about business communication, highly recommended. Because you want as much clarity and certainty as possible. I also really like the questions of openings and closings. The advice that we give at the Emily Post Institute is that you use correct capitalization, spelling and punctuation in your business communication, your email correspondence, that when you initiate an email chain with someone, you use the salutations and the closings.
SENNINGThat you treat it like a little letter. Once the exchange has started to happen, once the back and forth has begun, those can fall away. But just using someone's name or initial or nickname even at the start of an email, if it's less formal, if it's an informal communication, makes the person feel like they're being addressed. Not just having a command or a directive addressed to him or directed at them. So, it's a great way to engage someone's slightly more rational, reasonable mind to use those tools.
SENNINGAlthough I really like the way the Professor on our panel acknowledged that if the intent of your communication is to be a little more informal, that you have options there. You have ways to signal that, as well.
NNAMDIHenry Alford, technology is also changing the social contract between a host and a guest, known as RSVP. To understand the change, you point to the Facebook invitation, that gives the guest the option of maybe. What do you think the RSVP means to an invitee today?
ALFORDWell, I think that maybe, that's a real canary in the RSVP coal mine. That, and also the fact that when you RSVP for something now, you get the reminder that says, you know, the things you RSVP'd for is happening tonight. Those are both very modern innovations. Yeah, I think, you know, I spoke to a lot of chefs and restauranteurs and people who throw dinner parties, and they felt that because it's so easy to RSVP over email, given that most invitations now are some form of email or paperless post, that that has eroded the sort of social contract of the RSVP.
ALFORDAnd now people feel much more free to wiggle out of it. Certainly, your Mr. Bilten and that real techno crowd, they're probably texting at the last minute, saying, whoops, so sorry. Can't make it. So, yeah. No, it's a problem for folks who are hosting events.
NNAMDIDaniel, what do you think about this?
SENNINGI couldn't agree more. One of the most challenging things for any host to deal with is a question mark on a guest list. We get peppered with questions here, year round, about the continuing importance of RSVP. And it really is a fundamentally important skill. If you're doing it as an evite, following the old rules of responding with as much certainty and clarity as soon as possible continue to apply. So, it's OK to say yes, it's OK to say no. In fact, it's really important to learn how to say no well. Hearts will not break.
SENNINGJust hosts need to know. They need to know how to prepare and how to plan. If you do give a conditional reply, that very tricky, squirrelly maybe that a lot of evites seem to invite us to offer these days, you wanna resolve it as soon as possible. It really gives the impression that you're checking your options, that you can't commit, and that you're not sure about the event or the invitation. So, this is one where I would love to communicate to the digital generation. Really think about your host. Think about yourself as the person planning the event, and what you would most like to hear from the people that you're inviting.
SENNINGAnd try to follow that as closely as possible.
WITTEYeah, I would also endorse the Platinum Rule there. But I think if we take a step back, you know, and I think it's great -- you should RSVP. But on the other hand, we have to think about the sort of just in time world that we have now. And the flexibility that people have, you know, with the ability to change their plans on the fly and do things differently. There's a good side to that. The bad side is it makes planning for other people more difficult.
NNAMDIHere is Anne in Arlington, Virginia. Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNEHi Kojo. I'm really enjoying this show. I can have comment on each thing you've talked about. I had an experience recently that just feeds into this. I was visiting a lifelong friend in the Midwest, and a large portion of my family still lives there. And several of the younger generation made a definite effort to leave their homes of a couple hours away and come to visit with us. Still the same evening, after the event, I sent off a text to a couple of them, and an email message to another just thanking them for taking the time to come see us. And told them how much I enjoyed it and so forth.
ANNEThe friend whom I was visiting -- well, I've failed to say I'm 72, and as is my friend. We have learned to use computers kind of under duress. I don't really enjoy it, but I do it, and she too. She was complaining about, oh, her relatives who live away never thank her for gifts she sends, and she never hears from them anymore and this sort of thing. And I just turned to her and said, "Look, I don't like to text. I don't like to Tweet. I don't like anything about the Internet."
ANNEBut if you're going to -- you got to play the game the way they're playing it now, or you're never going to hear from them again." And she screamed at me and said -- we, we're like sisters so we've been old friends -- "You don't need to talk to me all the time about email and about Facebook. I'm not interested."
ANNESo, you know, there's just another little insight. I think she's losing touch with her family members, simply because she's so died-in-the-wool school stubborn, that she won't reach out to them in the way they prefer to reach out to you. Now, the ones I texted, I got a fast little text Monday morning from them saying, "Oh, it was good to see you." That was the end of it. But that was my (unintelligible)
NNAMDII'm glad you told us that story, Anne, because it allows me to have Daniel Post Senning talk about exactly what the medium has to do with how we approach it. You once, when we weren't in the digital environment, Daniel, you can read the room to get a sense of whether you should act formally or informally. Now, you have to size up the technology or the website. How do you think that one, like Ann's friend, can get a sense of the social norms of an online environment -- an online social space -- whether it's Twitter, Facebook or, well, LinkedIn?
SENNINGYeah. I suggest approaching with a spirit of wonder and curiosity. These are very powerful tools. Before you dive in too deep, you have the potential to reach billions of people through these remarkable new mediums. And you definitely do want to take a temperature of any -- of any new community that you're joining, and that can be an online community as well as a party that you've been invited to where you walk into a room and don't know half the people there. Really, really important to do just a little bit of assessment -- a temperature taking.
SENNINGAnd that's true in digital environments as well. The communication mediums that we choose to use today are part of the message that we send. We have so many options available to us, even the ways that we choose to engage starts to set the tone for the interaction. And, if you're working in a new medium, figuring out what the norms, what the -- what type of tone is expressed by what type of interaction is an important part of gaining facility in that new medium.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Thank you very much for your call, Ann. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you have any specific questions about "netiquette" or social norms online? Are you ever unsure whether your online behavior is polite or not? Let us know. 800-433-8850. Or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our "tech Tuesday" conversation on manners in a digital age. We're talking with James Witte, he's a professor of sociology at George Mason University. He directs the Center for Social Science Research. Henry Alford is a New York Times columnist and author of the book, "Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners." And Daniel Post Senning is an etiquette expert with the Emily Post institute, author of the book, "Manners In A Digital World, Living Well Online."
NNAMDIWe're are now joined by phone from New York by James Hirschfeld, co-founder of Paperless Post. That's an online stationery company. James Hirschfeld, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. JAMES HIRSCHFELDThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWe were talking earlier about whether people do or do not respond to RSVPs. Paperless Post allows hosts to make online invitations and track the replies of their guests. How do you think the role of an online invitation like the one you offer compares to the role of a traditional paper invitation?
HIRSCHFELDWell, I think in terms of RSVPs, there are many ways in which online delivery and tracking really encourages your recipients or your guests to actually reply and reply on time. It's much more convenient, obviously, to reply from your computer if you are using the Web all day long and also easier to ensure attendance because there's a digital facsimile in your mailbox and probably on your digital calendar, if you keep one. I think, in general, though, the rise of digital communication has made it much easier for us to be reached with all kinds of messages.
HIRSCHFELDAnd I think, with the rise of email, we've been getting more and more invitations, some of which are invitations that we want to -- to parties that we want to attend with people who we have real relationships with -- and others, which are more like spam. And I think, in that sense, the online invitation has definitely created a world of invitations that don't get RSVP'd to.
NNAMDIYou allow hosts to see which guests have opened their invitations without responding. Why did you decide that feature was important?
HIRSCHFELDWell, when serving hosts for events that are really important to them, as we do -- we send about a million invitations a week to parties like, engagement parties and weddings and anniversaries -- one thing that we found early on was, you know, hosts care about nothing more than knowing who's attending their party in advance and of getting -- and getting these RSVPs. So allowing hosts to see when someone's opened an invitation, it makes it easier for them to follow up if someone is dragging their feet to reply.
HIRSCHFELDIt also helps them figure out if they've reached someone at the wrong email address, if the invitation never gets opened. So it's just a way of giving transparency to the host, so they can know who to -- whom to expect and what to prepare for.
NNAMDIWe've been talking about the fact that technology has made some guests reluctant to commit to any one event, since they have access to so much information that they don't like making early commitments. James, based on your experience with Paperless Post, do you think guests take the RSVP as seriously when it's in digital form?
HIRSCHFELDI do. I think it really -- and actually, sort of, I have the perspective on this, because Paperless Post actually provides digital invitations as well as paper invitations as of a year ago. So we really cover the spectrum. And what I find to be the case is that parties that are smaller, intimate, private, well planned, not spammy -- those kinds of events are well applied to and well attended. And bigger events that are, you know, sent to people where, you know, the relationship between the host and guest is more tenuous or maybe non-existent, those are the events that people are reluctant to reply to.
NNAMDIDaniel Post Senning, we got a Tweet from Dee Fuller, who asks about emoticons in professional emails. Okay or not?
SENNINGOkay, once you've established a bit of a relationship with the recipient. You want to avoid them at first, just because not everyone knows exactly what you mean by semicolon, space and parenthesis. But most people will understand it as a wink. Once you've engaged that -- once you've engaged someone, you understand them a little bit as a person. Emoticons can add a little emotional content that can help someone decipher your meaning. It can add a richness to communication. But you want to treat carefully until you're sure that the person on the other end's going to know what you're talking about.
NNAMDIHenry Alford, and then James Witte, with all the information online, you can learn about people a lot without ever meeting them. It just takes a simple Google search. Are there appropriate times to do a quick online background check on people, before meeting them?
ALFORDWell, professionally, sure. And, in fact, I think if you don't Google the company that you're interviewing with, you're going to look really unprofessional and not terribly curious. Socially, it's a much slip -- more slippery slope. I think that you can Google someone who you've agreed to have a drink with. But I think you don't want to let on that you've Googled. And I think, of the stuff that comes up, you know, if it's a mag -- an article in a newspaper where this person was quoted, then you're cool.
ALFORDBut if it's -- if you're looking at, you know, how much they paid for their house, that could get a little creepy there in the bar or restaurant, when you meet your new friend.
WITTEYeah, I would agree completely. You want to avoid the creepiness. And I think the other good rule to follow, you know, either professionally or socially, is publically available -- you know, things that you can easily pick up on the Internet -- I think that's okay. You know, if you're paying for arrest records, for that sort of thing, then I think you're crossing the line.
NNAMDIDaniel Post Senning, allow me to have you help Carolyn Hax, who writes the advice column in the Washington Post. Today, in her column, a woman talked about -- well, yesterday, and there were more responses today -- a woman talked about a man she met and then decided to Google afterwards and found out that his father had killed his mother. And so she was having reservations about whether or not she should tell him that she found out this information about him online. What advice would you give to such a person, Daniel?
SENNINGWhew. That's a particularly challenging example. And it crosses a couple of lines. The general rule for conversation, broadly, is that tier one is safe: sports, weather, celebrity. Tier two: religion, politics, love life or dating, is a little bit trickier. And tier three: family and finance -- you don't ask probing personal questions about those things until someone has opened the door.
SENNINGSo, when you're talking about how much someone paid for their house or a very personal event dealing with someone's immediate family -- even if it's part of the public record -- I love that concept of, you know, what's out there in the public is out there in the public these days -- that digital profile is really a part of you and your personal brand. But, when you start to get into that tier three territory, family and finance, you want to be really careful how you ask probing questions until -- before someone has opened the door or invited that conversation.
NNAMDIOn to David in Great Falls, Virginia. David you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDHey, Kojo. Love your show. Listen to it all the time. And just have a remark to make, actually. I'm 60s -- in my 60s, and my teenage daughters have dragged me kicking and screaming into the 21st century with texts, that sort of thing, which I'm eternally glad for because it keeps me in touch with them and they are the light of my life. My main problem is, nowadays, if you say thank you to someone, like in Starbucks or something like that, and they're, say, 25 or younger, their response is always, "No problem." And I have a problem with that.
HIRSCHFELDMy father has a problem with that, too. It's so funny.
DAVIDI mean, I didn't anticipate there would be any problems. I thought it was just -- I was being polite. And all they have to say is, "You're welcome." So that's my comment.
NNAMDIDaniel Post Senning, where does -- how does, "No problem," compare with "You're welcome?" Is it acceptable?
SENNINGI love this call. I really do. Magic words are magic. And there's a reason that, please, thank you, you're welcome, is on the list -- it really is. Learning how to acknowledge someone's thanks or appreciation and not minimize it -- it's not always nothing, it's not always no problem. There is, sometimes, when someone has done something for you, they're expressing thanks or appreciation and just receiving that is a really important thing to do. You're welcome is a fundamental skill.
NNAMDIWe got an -- thank you very much for your call, David. We got an email from Nathan, who writes, "From one digital native perspective, calling someone out of the blue can be interpreted as being rude, in that the caller is appearing to demand the immediate attention of the call recipient. Texting and email are therefore more polite, because they allow for the possibility that the recipient is talking with someone else or is otherwise preoccupied. James Witte, we had a brief conversation about this in the interim, and this does seem to be a generational perspective...
WITTEIt is. And I think...
NNAMDI...by people who are multitasking.
WITTERight. And sort of slipping around through different types of interacting with people, you know, that the sort of -- before these technologies, co-presence was looking someone in the eye. And now, more and more, co-presence can go through various technologies. And the sudden interruption, you know, I think the way to handle it is, "Is now a good time to talk?" You know that you're respecting the privacy -- the fact that somebody may be having other things going on, and giving them a chance to say, "Well, really, this isn't a good time." And I think we should feel comfortable saying that.
NNAMDIHenry Alford, should we all be aware that the people we are communicating with, especially if they happen to be younger, but not necessarily so, are in a kind of different communicating -- communication environment these days and maybe, well, multitasking.
ALFORDSure. No, I think that that can -- that's probably going to save you a lot of time and frustration. So that, if you know you're communicating with someone who's not really a phone call kind of person, then yeah, then you just recalibrate. But I think, you know, on the flip side, if you're someone who's offended by being called on the telephone, don't answer your telephone.
NNAMDIDaniel Post -- yeah.
ALFORDYeah. Call them back later. And when you call back and you get their -- and you get their machine or whatever, just, you know, say, "Hey, maybe try emailing me. It might be faster."
NNAMDIDaniel Post Senning, we got this email from Riley. He says, "as a 62-year-old man, I appreciate text messages over voicemail in a number of instances, because neither my memory nor my hearing are as good as they once were. And the increase in leaving messages from a noisy mobile phone connection make bad voicemail almost worse than no voicemail. I also send text messages when I don't expect the recipient to have the time or the opportunity to listen or respond to a voicemail or the phone call itself." To which you say, Daniel?
SENNINGI applaud our flexible adopter. And I would even add another situation. Oftentimes, texting is a great way to send someone directions or contact information, because they can call straight from the text. They can just touch the number. They don't have to listen to it, enter it back into their phone. The same with directions, it's so much better to receive directions via text than phone call, because then you've got them recorded and you can re-access them whenever you need.
NNAMDIJames Hirschfeld, we got this email from Elizabeth. What is the etiquette regarding the request for RSVPs on invitations from organizations that are clearly sending the invite to hundreds of people?
HIRSCHFELDWhat is the etiquette about responding?
HIRSCHFELDWell, my feeling is that if an invitation is intended for you, specifically, from a host who recognizes -- or, you know, where you have a recognized relationship between the host and the guest, then of course it is your duty as a polite person to reply.
HIRSCHFELDIf you get an invitation unsolicitedly from a -- from a organization that you don't have a relationship with or a person that you don't have a relationship with -- if your name was purchased from a list or you don't understand why you've received the invitation -- and others may take issue with me with this comment on the -- in the discussion, but I don't really see why one should be obliged to reply to an unsolicited invitation.
NNAMDIWell, you can't take...
HIRSCHFELDAnd not -- I mean, of course, all invitations are somewhat unsolicited, but from where you don't have any relationship with the person who sent it to you.
NNAMDII can't take issue with you because we've just run out of time. Your word gets to be the last. James Hirschfeld is co-founder of Paperless Post, an online stationery company. Thank you for joining us. Daniel Post Senning is an etiquette expert with the Emily Post Institute. He's author of the book, "Manners In A Digital World, Living Well Online." Henry Alford is a New York Times columnist and author of the book, "Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide To Manners." And James Witte is a professor of sociology at George Mason University. He directs the Center for Social Science Research.
NNAMDIThank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, universities in our region are building more housing and new facilities. We look at the factors changing the landscape of college campuses. Then at 1:00, destination airports, restaurants that give airport food a better name, and a look at the terminals that rank high on travelers' lists for above-average fare. The Kojo Nnamdi Show, Noon till 2:00 tomorrow on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at KojoShow.org.
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