Etiquette In The Digital Age

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My husband and I raised our sons during the fleeting history of Instant Messenger, followed later by cell phones, texting, and smart phones. Where once I wrote thank you letters, I have largely shifted to expressing thanks by email, and where I used to talk by phone, I now text for short messages. I sometimes wish that we had a guide to help us navigate these new ways of interacting with one another. I’ve tried to evolve my own personal list of etiquette guidelines to match the times.

Here’s my partial list:
-If you get the sense that there is misunderstanding in your text conversation, pick up the phone to clarify verbally.

-Do not keep your phone turned on at the table when eating with company. The constant pinging or tendency to check your screen detracts from your ability to be truly present and engaged with others.

-Do not read emails or texts while attending to a baby or child. This not only models disconnecting behavior, but failing to connect may slow the development of their brain and nervous system.

-If you had a really nice visit with someone, or they went to a lot of effort to give you an especially good dinner, outing, or birthday present, I still recommend a hand-written note over an email.

-If a text or email contains anything confidential or potentially hurtful, send it in writing, or better yet, meet in person.

-If you have to terminate someone’s employment, let them know in person. It’s fine to write a letter to have a paper trail after the fact, but do not send an email in place of a person-to-person meeting.

-If you decide to break up with a lover, do it in person. Do not text, email or call. Exceptions to this might be when the person is abusive or potentially dangerous.

-Don’t let your search for information on the web replace the chance to gain wisdom from others. Keep talking to those whose life experience can inform your own. Seeing what’s on your phone is not the same as sharing from the heart or from life experiences.

-When someone you love writes you a really special email, save it in an electronic file, or print it out, or both. If not, you will have no record for your children, or for future posterity. Otherwise, we will lose the personal history of our generation!

-Take an “E-Sabbath!” Choose a day a week to be electronically free. This will stimulate your creativity; connect you to yourself and others. We all need to spend time alone in order to find and cultivate our greatest potential.

Technology has many benefits; quicker response times, easier long distance communication and virtual visits, to name a few. Yet, it is not a substitute for the in-person contact that teaches us to read body language, helps cultivate empathy, and keeps us connected to our hearts and each other.

What would you add to my list of electronic etiquette?


If you want more data, see the following:

The New York Times’ Sunday Review, from September 27th, called “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” by Sherry Turkle. (CLICK HERE TO READ IT) This features a 30-year study by the University of Michigan, which found a 40% decline in empathy among college students, with most taking place after 2000.  One teacher in the study observed that 12-year-olds today play on the playground like 8-year-olds. They lack the ability to put themselves in the other person’s shoes.

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17 Responses to Etiquette In The Digital Age

  1. Toby says:

    Eileen – A HUGE thank you for addressing this topic. A wise friend of mine told me a long time ago that it is OK to ask others to follow my own house rules. This gave me the courage to ask my son’s friends to remove their hats when inside and also to ask friends and family to follow our “no cell phones at meals” rule.
    How about adding to your awesome list:
    (1) Feel free to use the voice mail feature — especially when driving or when with someone. (I often feel like a second fiddle when a friend stops talking with me in order to respond to the phone — unless it is an emergency.) It is ok and polite to say “Excuse me. I’ve been waiting for this phone call and would like to take it.”
    (2) Remember that others can hear what you are saying on your cell phone. Either talk softly or walk to a more private location. (Once I was in line at CVS and a man in line was giving a negative reference for a former employee on his cell phone!! Everyone else in line could hear him.)

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      I really appreciate both your additions Toby. Perhaps we’ll create an on-line collaborative E- etiquette book! I so get your feeling like a second fiddle when a friend stops to answer the phone in my presence. Such simple things can have big impact. Take care.

  2. joan says:

    Eileen, perhaps it is only apparent to those who had their beginnings – in a world and famiy that expressed love in the many ways that count – who find sadness in the world of today. A flip “love you” is now often the ending of just about any email to anyone. Meaningless. We attribute it to “the rush of live” . . . but most is the feeling that we are nothing if we are not on the move. Not only that, but we must let everyone know that this is how we show we are “wanted” and “popular”.

    Very sad. I have saved the letters — often on that creamy stationery — that were handwritten. Rereading a few, the words that flowed were those from the heart, so fully expressed that we, on reading, knew we were privy to a deep moment in life. If I had a choice, I would still take time to write letters that would come in the mail, knowing the person on the other end is going to find some private time alone to read and respond. But in the very recent years, we have no real address, do we? We have email at the most; one liners sent off on twitter and Facebook for the world to read.

    The end of real letters reflects something so much larger that will not be reversed. Throwaway emails reflect what I see as friends as easily discarded; the feeling of “family” and its closeness very often no longer there. Phone calls now? Rushed and wasted. We don’t have time.

    To the young, it is their lives. They don’t know any different. To the rest of us who have lived a life so much more fulfilling, we can’t but wonder what the future will hold. VERY sad.

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      Dear Joan, I know what you mean about letters. I have boxes and boxes of filed personal letters. Happily I still get probably 3-5 a week, which seems a lot. I save some of the more personal ones and consider them my most prized treasures.

      But I don’t think the world is failing the young. We are living through a void of sorts, as our lives get fuller and fuller of technology. At some point, the void will fill again with something more personal, more meaningful because we all need meaning in life to feel fulfilled. At least this is my prayer. Thanks for writing.

  3. Lili Ruane says:

    Beautifully detailed!
    Thank you. 🙂

  4. Luanne says:

    When people do not talk directly to any person, adult, teenager, child or baby but use an electronic device to communicate they become less human and might as well be a robot. Mothers out taking their child for a walk who text during the outing are not teaching their child about life, they are satisfying their own personal needs. Children who communicate via any electronic device will one day wonder why they are beyond dull and not able to hold down an important, successful job, unless their boss is a robot. Other than doctors or someone who may have an emergency situation all phones should be off when out at restaurants, attending a public event including movies, etc. Talking selfies of events does not allow ones mind to digest the significance of what is taking place. Memories are best remembered when a person’s entire body participates not just holding a cellphone up in the air to record a time, place, person, etc. I have a cell phone, iPad, and laptop. I make good use of them but not instead of being in the moment, talking to people or enjoying sitting sipping coffee watching the world go bye without checking for emails, texts, or recording the day.
    I am so glad I am not part of the this generation or future generations….they will never understand the joys of really being a human being living life. It is sad that we have turned into a society that needs 24/7 self-gratification and immediate response, instead of looking forward to getting a letter in the mailbox outside their home.
    I wonder when people who are not in school or under twenty five have picked up a ‘real’ book and read it for the pure enjoyment of reading. I wonder when they sat across the dinner table at home, in the school cafeteria, etc. and simply chatted for the pleasure of having a good conversation.
    I rattle on…but I seriously doubt the world will survive if electronics rule our minds and souls.

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      There is much about technology that gives immediate gratification, and I didn’t mean to start a technology bashing blog, but I do understand your frustration about it overtaking the power of presence. Being present to life in any given moment is like watching time-lapse photography of a flower opening; it fills one with wonder. The more we can open to wonder in any given moment, the more deeply we enjoy life.
      And as to selfies…I am guilty of them on occasion but I much prefer to ask some passer by if they will take the picture. I like the excuse for connection. Don’t you?

      • Luanne says:

        I love connecting with people I do not know!!! The experiences I have had doing just that have been rewarding and valuable beyond description.
        Everything in moderation might be a good compromise when it come to electronic gadgets.

  5. Darrel says:

    As I reflect back (over too many decades) this conversation strikes me as history repeating itself. Cars were the death of family life. Everyone went their own way and families didn’t do things together any more. TV came along and families didn’t talk with each other, they just stared at “the box”. And, no one writes letters any more, they just call on the telephone. Thinking back, when I would visit my grandparents at a time when the “crank” telephone hung on the wall, no TV, and the car spent most the time in the garage, my grandparents spent the day farming in the field, taking care of the garden, doing chores, cooking or baking, or resting from their hard work. When at home with my parents, we had TV, a car used to go to scouts, and other appointments. Even though we were under the same roof our interaction was limited. Each had an interest that occupied their time. Mine was reading. Blame the decline of family interaction on Gootenburg! We still have family interaction. It’s just by a different means. If there were four friends visiting, we don’t feel slighted when a person talks to someone other than me. Evening phone calls are almost always from friends or family and are social conversations. We turn on the speaker and another person joins our evening through technology. We don’t have a “don’t answer the doorbell” rule. The guideline is to make the cell phone a way to involve everyone in the conversation, not just one person. We couldn’t do that with landlines. The lack of curtesy with cell phones is loud conversations. Cell phone voice is like my grandmother talked on her phone. LOUD! Maybe someday that will pass too, while we are messing up our “family life” by too many hologram visits.

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      I love and appreciate your perspective Darrel. You really made me smile. Isn’t it the truth that each new invention seems to bring worries of how it will ruin our society. I guess no new invention is all bad. There are definite pluses of technology, and I’m using one of them right now! But like with everything, we have to figure out protocols for how to use it while maintaining respect in our family. And by the way, your family sounds really wonderful.

  6. Phyll says:

    By the length and depth of the responses, so far, it seems a “Pandora’s Box” of technology and electronic gizmos has been opened. Thank you, Eileen. For, it starts the conversation about the climate of the world these days—from personal relationships to politics. Clicks, clacks, Selfies and self-aggrandizements set the scene for how life is in 2015 (and racing forward).

    That said, I agree with you Eileen, Toby, Joan, Lili and Luanne. Life has gotten quicker, slicker, less personal and more isolated. We could all share stories about how lonely we feel at times or how the world has sped up, not receiving snail-mail (even the term implies slowness which implies something unappealing or, even more so, unacceptable) and the list goes on. I know, and agree wholeheartedly—something valuable has been lost. Something precious is missing.

    But, for my main share today, I’ll say that the place cell phones, iPads, iPhones and ANY electronic media really gets my craw is when I’m driving Dancer (pony) in our cart or carriage. When my passenger even “takes” a cell phone along and I hear these obnoxious “ring tones”, I
    want to shout: Oh, no! Not HERE! The one place I retreat to for solace, serenity and old-fashioned charm cannot, will not, shall not be “invaded” by such technology. No way!

    Lately, before anyone climbs aboard, I very gently request no cell phones, radios, or gadgets, please. This is sacred space. An hour or two of pure country sounds, smells, clippity-clops and communing with Nature—simply, sweetly, serenely is essential for my heart and soul.. It is the one last “sanctuary” I can enter that offers peace and harmony, love and light, rest and restorative experiences. Walk on, Dancer. . .walk on. . .

    • eileenrockefeller says:

      We are all entitled to whatever we consider sacred. And I understand what you’re saying about driving Dancer. I do the same when I’m driving my horses. There’s a time to be plugged in, and a time to be present. How to be present more of the time is what occupies me a lot. Thank you for your comments.

  7. Hi Eileen, It is worth taking time to learn to use the wonders of the electronic devices. And, it is
    worth taking a break from all of the buzz to think about how to return to these devices with a creative purpose “in hand”. One has to continue to communicate to live, fully. Electronic wonders are magical ! My suggestion for your list: DO NOT WATCH A MOVIE ONLINE WHILE DINING OUT WITH FRIENDS, UNLESS ALL WATCH THE MOVIE, TOGETHER .

  8. eileenrockefeller says:

    Yes. The trick is to be inclusive, and not to let technology isolate us from each other or ourselves.

  9. Phyll says:

    P.S. Here’s a link I’d like to share with everyone in light of this topic & my earlier comment:
    ENJOY! (And, please turn on your speakers 🙂

  10. Georgianna says:

    I have a story to share…
    I have two wonderful son-in-laws. One loves the outdoors and spends a lot of time doing outdoor activities. The other son-in-law not so much, but loves his electronics and especially his cell phone. When they were visiting one time the electronics son wanted to spend time doing outdoor activities, so they arranged a fishing trip. When they got to their destination my electronics son noticed there was no reception. He kind of got in a panic saying “but what will we do” ? The other son-in-law said “just sit back and enjoy the sounds of nature.” It took him a while to relax, but he did survive. 🙂

  11. What a wonderful story Georgianna! I bet it will make a lifelong memory for the electronically inclined son-in-law!

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