6: Mind Your Manners

Etiquette remains a concern in social interaction, though it has been undermined by a number of factors: the use of technology as the intermediary between people (composing an e-mail seems like entering data into a machine) and the traditional authority culture (being courteous was misinterpreted as a sign of weakness).

The principles of etiquette have changed very little over the years. Much of the content in Emily Post's handbook, written in 1922, remains valid to this day. While certain specific practices have been discontinued (few people attend formal dinners anymore), the core principles of interacting with others remain the same. Etiquette rests on three basic principles: being considerate, respectful, and honest.

(EN: It's worth noting that this is the friendly face of etiquette. Traditionally, etiquette was not so much a matter of being considerate of others as it was demonstrating your belonging to an elite class - holding your fork in your left hand made you part of a group that did not include buffoons who juggle the silverware. That notion of etiquette is largely swept under the rug - and while I'd agree it should not be promulgated, neither should it be entirely ignored.)

(EN: I'd also take issue with the notion of etiquette as an expression of honesty. It would be more accurate to suggest that it has to do with predictability. Many of the "rules" of etiquette are merely signaling your intention so that others know what to expect. Failing to deliver on those expectations is dishonest, and bad etiquette, but the point of etiquette is signaling intent.)

The value of etiquette is obvious in service situations: a rude waiter will cause a diner to reconsider returning to a restaurant (and in an extreme situation, will cause the diner to leave immediately). Even though the behavior of the person providing service has no impact on the quality of the service being provided, it can have a profound impact on the customer's willingness to enter into or perpetuate a relationship with a business.

The same applies to other relationships in the workplace: the list of reasons that people leave companies (taking their talent and experience elsewhere) varies, but invariably include factors such as a domineering boss or obnoxious coworker. And where the business is in the role of the customer, it's not as uncommon as it once was for a vendor to "fire" a customer for reasons other than non-payment.

(EN: This also depends on the availability of options. The easier it is for a customer to find another vendor, or a vendor to find another customer, or an employee to find another job, the less they will be willing to tolerate.

Training for Etiquette

Companies are well aware of the visibility their employees have on the Internet and seek to control employee behavior (either cutting off access to social media sites, or having a lengthy and draconian policy statement that employees must sign, which dictates the terms of using the company's internet connection. The problem is, this doesn't cover what they do or say outside the office, and as "employer" is a part of most social profiles, what they say in their private lives is still connected to the company in some way.

Even companies that mean well often go too far in providing lengthy and detailed guidance that employees can't reasonably be expected to remember, if they bother to read it at all. It's not as simple as a list of do and don't. Nor is it sufficient to consider online behavior from a strictly legal standpoint - a person can act within the law, and still be abrasive and obnoxious.

What's needed is for companies to provide training for their employees in business etiquette. The recommended solution is for companies to train their employees in business etiquette. It's not taught in school or college, and it's increasingly absent in the home. Some businesses provide such training for employees beyond a certain level (management and executives), but it's even more important, in the modern age, for it to be taught to the rank-and-file - as it's at this level that relationships critical to business success are created and maintained.

Applying Manners Online

The chapter concludes with the usual list of random advice:

One good bit of guidance is to keep the person in mind: when you're typing an e-mail consider the reaction of the person who is reading it. If participating in online chat, how would people react if you said the same things, in the same way, face-to-face.

It's also important to remember that nothing said online is ever private. A remark intended for one person can be seen by all - and even if you send an e-mail to one person, it may be forwarded to someone else, and after that, it's public knowledge. (EN: on that matter, forwarding an e-mail without informing the sender you intend to do so is also bad etiquette and may harm the trust that person places in you.)

Remember that being social means communicating bilaterally: you are not merely broadcasting information to others, but receiving information from them as well. In real-world social circles, a person who constantly talks about themselves and doesn't pay attention to others is generally shunned. The same is true online.

The maxim of "if you can't say anything nice, say nothing at all" does not entirely apply. Social media isn't an exchange of flattery, but an active discussion in which people should be able to disagree - so long as they can do so respectfully.

Be attentive to grammar and spelling. While the Internet is considered to be casual communication, being sloppy with grammar and spelling still makes a bad impression, especially when you are communicating on behalf of a business.

An individual should be just as attentive to his online "brand" as any company. It's important to periodically audit your online personality - gather together the various information that exists about you online (social media, blog postings, etc.) and consider what another person, who knew nothing else about you than what they could find online, might think of you as a result.

And finally, participate. Part of being part of an online community is contributing to it. People who read without contributing are not well-regarded, and people who contribute nothing but merely comment on the contributions of others are also given little regard. You have to put yourself out there, let people know you, and communicate interactively in order to be a member of the club.