Our Collective Need to Make a Shift to Digital Etiquette

Don't think digital etiquette matters? In today’s digital-first world, every one of us has been offended by someone else's online antics.
Don’t think digital etiquette matters? In today’s digital-first world, every one of us has been offended by someone else’s online antics.

In the 19th century, standard etiquette would encourage you to “speak, on entering the parlor of your friend, first to the hostess, then to the host.”

Growing up in the ’80s, my elbows got knocked off the table if they found themselves propped up at the dinner table. However, in today’s digital-first world, perhaps we’d happily trade our kids elbows propped up on a table over the worry of how they behave on TikTok!

Many of us do not give much thought to digital etiquette. When we do, it’s because we’ve been negatively affected by someone else’s inappropriate digital behavior.

Personally, I’ve maintained a more than passing interest in etiquette, and more recently, digital decorum specifically. I love when the rules of etiquette allow others to feel more comfortable in their surroundings.

What exactly is digital etiquette?

For purposes of this discussion, digital etiquette is defined by how we behave within digital environments, including email, social media, and video platforms such as Zoom. And, when I think about etiquette, I think less about the Balissande Finishing School version and their excellent Instagram account of classical etiquette.

Instead, I think more about the gracious host making the guest the center of the world. I always appreciate someone choosing to make everyone a little more at ease by following (often unspoken) social rules.

Many things considered proper etiquette are socially constructed standards that not everyone realizes or recognizes. And when standards are expected or enforced, it can create quite the opposite of the intended expectation — making people feel uneasy.

There’s a shift taking place from “elbows on the table” etiquette standards to a whole new set of rules in the digital world, and it’s dizzying.

Do you remember when you first learned that ALL CAPS equates to shouting? That was a bit jarring for me…and that seemed like a simple shift.

It’s on another level to know when and how to appropriately use emojis during a digital business conversation. For example, I’d advise keeping eggplants and kissy-face emojis out of those conversations. However, I’m curious if that is common knowledge or personal opinion.

Five Areas Where the Need for Digital Etiquette Shows Up

What we say and do in the digital world or on our digital devices affects others. This makes it very important to know how to be a gracious digital host.

Most of us know not to text in a theater. (I said, “most.”) Similarly, most of us know that playing your YouTube or TikTok video at full-blast in public is akin to fully extending your seat back on an airplane.

But what about more subtle forms of digital communication? How can you be a gracious host in the digital world? In other words, what are today’s ALL CAPS moments that are still blind spots for some? In the interest of staying on top of this fast-moving trend, here are my personal Top 5.

1. The Dreaded Gated Content

If you are sharing gated content, know that it’s likely your end-user will not be able to read it. You have a couple of healthy options.

  • Some publications now allow users to share subscription-based content if you use their share button to obtain and provide the link.
  • You could save the article and attach it as a PDF, maintaining the integrity of the source.

In both cases, summarize the piece and your point of view about why you are sharing it. The article can then become a proof point (citation-like) to the lesson you’re sharing.

2. The Overlong Email

Dr. James Hamblin wrote a great piece on email etiquette in 2016 that I think is still relevant today. My favorite takeaway from the article is, “Brevity signals respect.” I’ve personally broken this guideline too many times. I’m always wanting to provide all the information and social niceties, but I think he has a strong point.

Hubspot, the online marketing software company, will tell you that 200 words or less are ideal for an email.

One straightforward way to help keep emails concise is to mind your website addresses. Far too many are ridiculously long. In some cases, could take up half of an email text. Many of those addresses have tracking codes making them not only long but a potential privacy hazard.

The good news is that you don’t need to paste the full long link in an email. Instead, create an elegant hyperlink. And when you need to send an attachment, make it as small as possible. PDF Shrink is a great tool, too.

3. The Boss Email

This one came from a friend who received a boss email recently, and it’s a good one. If you are a boss or a higher-up, be aware of the “Can we talk?” or “Let’s connect at 3” type of subject lines. Instead, provide at least some context, or most people will assume the worst.

Your intention might just be to brainstorm live about an upcoming project or share news on a change in the company that is easier done in person. Still, without context, it’s easy for anyone to wonder if it’s performance-based, or worse, layoff-related.

4. The Social Tirade

I almost left this one off the list because it should be so obvious, but it could actually be an article in and of itself based on the number of tirades I still witness. The general rule here: everything you write in a social post or a digital forum should be something you’d be completely comfortable with having an in-person conversation about.

This includes the tone of everything you write. Too often, perhaps because we aren’t seeing the people in real-time, social media posts read like angry tirades.

Beyond the impact those posts have on you and those around you today, they’re also fair game for future scrutiny — either by an employer or others. In this case, your online reputation is at stake.

One simple trick can help. After you write your post — but before you hit submit — imagine saying it out loud to someone you deeply respect. If you hesitate to know if they’d respond positively, delete it and walk away.

5. The Phone in Hand.

I’ve noticed more and more, with both Zoom and in-person conversations, phones. They are always in reach and quite often checked in real-time in meetings.

Everyone sees that, and I expect it will never become normalized. At best, your colleagues will feel unconsciously off-put and, at worst, they will feel outright disrespected. This comes down to time and attention. The phone draws away from both of those.

Speaking of Zoom, most of us are still learning our video etiquette. However, here’s one great piece of advice. Help the host of the meeting be successful.

Perhaps be ready to provide at least one bit of chit-chat at the beginning of a session. Or let everyone know why you are turning your camera off before just going dark. That way, the host doesn’t shoulder all the responsibility.

A Kinder, Gentler Digital World?

It’s clear what we say and do in the digital world or on our digital devices affects others directly.

At the end of the day, digital etiquette is all about being a gracious host. This is true whether you are the host or the guest of the party. Perhaps not in the too distant future that dinner party will be in the metaverse. Of course, then we’ll have a whole new set of expectations!

The door is never closed until the guest is underway, by foot or by car.”
Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette: A Guide to Gracious Living, Part III, “Home Entertaining” [1952]

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