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How Digital Devices Change the Rules of Etiquette

Should sending "Thank you" emails and leaving voice mails now be considered bad manners? Some think texting has made it so.

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people with smartphones

Smartphones are changing our notion of acceptable behavior. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jennifer Conley

I committed my first texting heresy a few years ago when my son was away at college. I had asked him about a class he was taking and had needed three, maybe four sentences to express myself.

He responded with bemusement. Or maybe it was disgust. Who could tell?

But his message was clear: If I continued to be so lame as to send texts longer than two sentences–using complete words, no less–he would have little choice but to stop answering.

I was reminded of this less-than-tender father-son moment recently by a post by Nick Bilton for The New York Times’ Bits blog in which he railed against those who send “Thank you” emails, among other digital transgressions.

His contention is that such concise expressions of gratitude, while well-intended, end up being an imposition for recipients who have to open up an email to read a two-word message. Better to leave the sentiment unexpressed–although he does concede that it probably makes sense to indulge old folks, who are much more likely to appreciate the appreciation.

Behavior modification

Bilton’s larger point is that as technology changes how we communicate and gather information, we need to adapt what we consider proper etiquette. Why should we continue to leave voice mails, he argues, when a text is much more likely to be answered? And why, he asks, would anyone these days be so rude as to ask for directions?

Not that this is the first time that tech is forcing an etiquette rethink. Bilton harkens back to the early days of the telephone when people truly didn’t know what to say when they picked up a ringing phone. Alexander Graham Bell himself lobbied for “Ahoy,” while Thomas Edison pushed for “Hello.” Edison ruled, of course, although now that our phones tell who’s calling before we have to say a word, the typical greeting has devolved to “Hey” or the catatonically casual “‘S up.”

Sure, some of this is a generational thing–The Independent nailed that in a recent piece on how members of three generations of one family communicate–or not–with each other.

But it’s also about volume. Email never sleeps. For a lot of people, each day can bring a fire hose of digital messages. Imagine if you received 50 to 100 phone calls a day. You can bet you’d be telling people to stop calling.

If the purpose of etiquette is to be considerate of other people, Bilton would contend that that’s the whole idea behind cutting back on emails and voice mails. And he’d have a point.

Me, my phone and I

But then there’s the matter of device isolation. I’m sure you know it well by now–the person who starts texting away during a conversation, or a meal, or even a meeting, which is one of those things bosses tend not to like (not to mention that it probably also means the death of doodling.)

It’s hard to put a positive spin on this since it does send a pretty clear message: I’d rather focus my energy on connecting to someone through a device than in person. Maybe it’s just me, but that, I’d say, reeks of rude.

If anything, it’s going to get worse, especially with wearable tech about to go mainstream. Some think this is the year the smart watch could start to become the accessory of choice, which means people will be looking at their wrists a lot more in the future–not so much to check the time, which is rude enough, but more to see who’s sent them emails and texts.

And what about when Google Glass goes on the market later this year? They’re glasses that will enable you to check emails, go on the Web, watch videos, even take pictures, all while feigning eye contact with the people you’re with. And the Google Glass camera raises all kinds of issues. Will wearers have to make pre-date agreements not to take stealth photos, particularly any involving eating or drinking? Is anyone fair game in a Google Glass video?

But beyond questions of privacy and social boorishness, the impact of our obsession with digital devices, especially when it comes to the loss of personal connections, could go much deeper. In a piece in Sunday’s New York Times, Barbara Frederickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, cites research suggesting that if you don’t practice connecting face-to-face with others, you can start to lose your biological capacity to do so.

Writes Frederickson:

“When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.”

Digital deviance

Here are other recent developments in how technology is affecting behavior:

Video bonus: All kinds of embarrassing things can happen while you’re texting.

Video bonus bonus: More evidence of the obsession that is texting: Here’s a clip of a bride firing off one last message before she says her vows.

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