The Etiquette of Communicating

The Etiquette of Communicating

Yesterday evening, I took down from a bookshelf a volume about Etiquette. It had belonged to my Grandfather, and was printed in 1901. The archaic use of language was intriguing; the mores and protocols described, even more so. One was reminded, among other things, that ladies should not wander abroad on their own, but always be escorted; that they should be invited to walk on the inside of the pavement, and to take the arm of their escort to protect them from lurking “footpads” (an early form of mugger). I remember trying such old world courtesy on my sister when we were teenagers – she just told me to stop shoving. I felt a sneaking sympathy for the footpads.

The book contained quite a bit on forms of communication. It concentrated on the correct way to write different sorts of letters. Appropriate salutation and signing off were important, as were levels of formality and familiarity. It stressed that it was a matter of courtesy to acknowledge receipt, and/or deal with any legitimate enquiry as soon as practically possible.

All irrelevant now perhaps? This the age of the internet, of electronic communication. I don’t think I have ever received a letter written on paper from my two children. I have, however, been lured, of necessity, into the SMS habit by them, and into the sometimes over-succinctness demanded by such media. I once sent an email explaining how a piece of equipment functioned, to a son who had enquired about it. It comprised some pages of considered writing, covering the subject as well I could. I was quite proud of it. His response?
At the time, I didn’t think that was much of a reward for several pages of technical writing, but I did know that he had received it, and some form of appreciation was implied. However, succinct as his response had been, he was out-done by his brother a few weeks later. I asked this son if he would meet me for lunch one day. His response?
Not even a full stop.

But at least they were acknowledgements. Compressed to a single word, or even a single letter, they were still acknowledgements. The line of communication was maintained, because even the single letter indicated the message was received and the plan agreed. And therefore, somehow, so had the etiquette – the courtesies implied in response, however brief.

However, I am puzzled about what to make of a new trend that some of my colleagues and I have noticed over the last couple of years – of not answering messages at all. At first we concluded that our spam filters were being too aggressive, but no, this was not the cause. It was in fact a mini-trend, and we knew this because the practice (or non-practice) was recurrent in certain clearly identifiable individuals. While most seemed to be continuing under the normal assumptions – messages should at least be acknowledged, and/or responded to as soon as practicable – this new group seemed to have abandoned them. It was also notable that the behavior seemed to be in the context of messages that might not be the easiest to deal with – the difficult ones. This cannot be acceptable can it – the idea that if don’t like what is being asked, you just ignore it? If you ignore a message that contains a legitimate enquiry, you disrespect the sender, and ultimately this risks relationship break down - as bad as it gets for business. We are busy in a world where the tiniest courtesy – a single word, or even just a single letter on a smart-phone – can still make a big difference. But silence – ignoring messages because they might be difficult - never will.

I am rather glad to learn that even in the age of electronic real-time communications, the basic points of etiquette, around for over a hundred years, still apply.



© Peter Saxton

Spring 2015.