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Communication has changed

Interpersonal communication etiquette was a lot simpler back in the day. You had letters and face-to-face conversations. The biggest risk was somebody intercepting a private letter and malicious gossip.

Then came the telephone. The sheer number of conversations increased dramatically. Telephone conversations were overheard. Teenagers were known for cloistering themselves in their rooms and talking all day on the phone.

Fast forward to today. Letters and conversations are few and far between. Emails, texts and social media posts dominate. It’s a new world.

It’s a fragmented world. Different people use different technologies. Older people use email. Younger people use text. Some people use specific texting apps like What’s App or Facebook Messenger. In many ways, it’s a Tower of Babel.

Adding to the confusion is the lack of privacy. Emails are scanned by strangers to create a personal profile of you so you can be targeted for advertising. Everything you do is tracked. All the details of your life are exposed and saved forever. Kinda scary.

If you can go off the grid, I congratulate you. You have arrived. But most of us have to work, function and interact with society. There is no real alternative. Mastering all these new communication technologies today is equivalent to learning to read in the past. Technological illiteracy is rarely an option.

Over the years I have heard so many people, usually older, tell me, “It’s too late for me to learn to email (or text, or search the Internet or get a smartphone or do Facebook.)” One by one, these people eventually come around. Few of us can afford isolation.

There is a hierarchy of modern-day communications tools each with a separate etiquette. It’s important to understand how this works.

Email

This is the go-to communication medium for businesses, acquaintances and even strangers. The etiquette is pretty broad here. Hard to mess up too badly. The send/receive etiquette bar is low. Email blasts are accepted as part of the lay of the email land. It’s easy to ignore emails, filter spam, block annoying people and communicate with large groups.

Email is fine for business, social, commentary and just about anything. Some people are political email blasters. That’s fine, but be prepared for friends to ask to be removed from the list. And try to do some fact checking before passing on fake news, which is rampant in the email sphere.

Text messages

Texts are a whole different ball game from email. Texts should be much more intimate, personal and urgent than email. Hardly anybody sets up sound notifications for email. If they did, their phones would ding all day long. Thus, emails can be ignored until checked leisurely at will.

Not so for text messages. Many people will program their phone to ding if they get a new text. Plus charges can apply to text messages. Texts are for close friends and family to communicate quickly. It’s bad etiquette to text someone you don’t know well.

Voice mail

Back in the day, voice mail was a big deal. We all had voice recorders. But text and email has made this more or less obsolete. Do not call someone on your smartphone and leave a message that you called. They know you called. It’s on their missed call list. It takes time to listen to a redundant voice mail and delete it.

The only reason to leave a voicemail is if the subject matter is complex enough that a text message would be difficult. Another reason would be if the subject matter is delicate and the tone in your voice would be significant. With the ability to dictate long text messages, voice mails should be pretty infrequent.

Live calls

Live calls are time wasters and should be reserved for entertainment and complex, dynamic interchanges such as picking a place to go to dinner. Phone calls are a fall back when email, text and even voicemail have failed to get the job done. For instance, if the system breaks down and your reservation is completely screwed up, a phone call may be in order.

Bear in mind, I am referring to cell phone calls. Home phones are for your security system and telemarketers. Calling someone on their home phone just means you barely know them and don’t have their cell number. Office phones are a bit of a gray area. Still used, but much less personal and urgent than the smartphone.

Social media

Social media is, well, social. It’s your external face to the world. As such, you should stay within some basic conventions of decency and socially accepted practices. Diatribes should be limited to screwed up airplane reservations, bureaucratic stupidity and other universally despised things. Save your political rants for political blogs.

Posting a picture of your beautiful family vacation seems to be de rigueur but just realize that some will regard this as a form of vanity. Same thing with the miraculous accomplishments of your children. Some judgement is required here.

Handwritten letters

Oh boy. Is this your last will and testimony? Explaining to your spouse why you are leaving? Telling an adult child why you will no longer send him or her all your money? This is reserved for some seriously significant words. If it’s life changing, do not email or text or Facebook. Write a handwritten letter on nice personalized stationery.

Face-to-face

Ever been to a restaurant and seen everybody at the table staring at their smartphones instead of talking to one another? Problem with face to face is that you are limited to communicating with the person in front of you. If you don’t want to talk face to face with a person, then stay home. Otherwise, it is rude to be on your smartphone when having a conversation with another human being, unless to turn it off.