Presentation notes: Communications Etiquette in the Modern World
Traditional forms of communication:
• face to face
The etiquette, or code of conduct for this communication was clear and well laid out.
In the information technology age, which is less than two decades old:
• newer methods of instant communication are being constantly developed and introduced.
Voicemail, SMS, voice messaging, email and instant messenger are tools not available to the previous
The development of etiquette to accompany these newly emerging technologies is still in its infancy.
Whatever standards are developed are not widely circulated or shared internationally, as yet.
-phones and cell phones
-text and voice messaging
-chat and VOIP
Good communication is an essential skill for any manager and a fundamental requirement for
It is therefore surprising how many people forget the basics - know your subject, know your audience,
make sure the message is effectively transmitted, and receive and act on the reply.
There are an ever increasing number of communication methods available. Each has particular
advantages and disadvantages, and should be used appropriately. A letter has more impact than an
email. Face-to-face meetings will cement business relationships, but are expensive and time
consuming. Email is rapidly becoming the curse of the office, but is an invaluable tool. In decreasing
order of perceived impact (and effort) the principal communications channels are face-to-face
meeting, letter, fax, memo, phone call and email.
Basic principles - know your subject
Before trying to communicate, make sure that you know exactly what it is you want to say.
Prepare your message – produce a draft letter, or key points to include in a phone call. Do not try to
hide inconsistencies - omit them completely or obtain advice. If asked a question that you can’t
answer, then say so, but find out the answer directly and follow up with your reply.
Know your audience
What does the recipient of your message want to hear? If they already know a lot about the subject
then don’t bore them with a detailed history. Are they technically qualified to deal with the
information you are giving them? Is a single-sided communication (letter, email, fax) suitable, or do
they need the opportunity to ask questions or have more difficult points explained in person (meeting,
Make sure the message is transmitted effectively
Whatever the key point of the communication, make sure that it isn’t lost in irrelevant material or
social chit chat. Yes, it is important to take an interest in people and this will strengthen management
positions and business relationships, but keep social and business material separate. Don’t try to
communicate too much information. Limit yourself to two or three key points, and if the message
contains more then break them down into numbered paragraphs or bullet points.
Provide background material where necessary to emphasise a point. Make sure that the
communication medium does not distract from the message. Use graphics where appropriate, but
not to such an extent they are a distraction. Use a spellchecker and if necessary a grammar check as
well. There is nothing more distracting than text which is poorly constructed or full of mistakes. If
necessary, follow up with a phone call to make sure that your message has been received and
Receive and act on the reply
Communication is a two-way process, so invite a response and be prepared to act on it. A good
phrase for signing off a letter, which may be adapted for the particular circumstances, is: ‘Please do
not hesitate to contact me/Mr Jones/the undersigned directly if you have any questions regarding this
problem or would like further information about the project.’
Written communications provide a permanent record. They can be used to very good effect, as
they will sit in an in-tray until acted upon and filed. Take care, however, that letters and faxes are not
treated as junk mail and filed directly in the bin. Also, as the message is permanent, make sure that
you are not saying anything that may be used against you later!
Letters carry the most weight of any written communication. Most people still enjoy receiving
them, and this can be used to your advantage. Letters should be kept short, two pages at most. Provide
additional material as enclosures. Use the correct form of greeting: ‘Dear Sir/Madam...Yours
faithfully’, or ‘Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms Smith...Yours sincerely’.
For less formal letters, consider ‘Dear John...Best regards/Kind regards’ or simply ‘Regards’. Add
your name, qualifications and position under your signature. Also provide details of enclosures, filing
Faxes used to be indispensable, but are now often superseded by email. They provide an almost
instant form of communication, but without the weight of a letter and they can still be used to
good advantage. Faxes usually carry the company logo, are delivered to your desk and often break
into the flow of work, demanding immediate attention. Often more chatty then letters they do not
necessarily require a greeting, but start immediately with the body of the message. Consider writing
the recipient’s name at the top of the message and adding the final sign-off by hand.
Think twice before sending emails. Many people are swamped by messages and dread coming
back to work after holidays as they know the ‘inbox’ will be overflowing. Also, think twice about
why you are sending the message. If it is an angry flame to an ignorant colleague then draft the
message on pen and paper first. If you still want to send the message, then write the email, but you
will be more objective (or even constructive) in your reply.
Would a phone call or face-to-face conversation be more appropriate? We all know managers
who hide behind emails rather than coming to discuss issues directly – often because conversation is a
two-way process, whereas email does not have to be. Emails are generally informal and are a good
way of communicating information once you know the person with whom you are corresponding. So,
avoid sending emails to someone you have never met or spoken to, unless they have specifically
asked for this method of communication.
‘Yours sincerely’ is not really appropriate - many emails finish with a simple ‘Thank you’ or
‘Regards’. Again, keep the message short - two or three key points. Read, and reread it before you
send it, and if possible set up your email system so that messages are not transmitted instantly. Set
‘Return Receipt’ flags on important messages, and file a copy where you and your colleagues can
‘It’s good to talk’. Often much more can be achieved by talking on the phone or face to face than
is possible through a series of written communications.
Meetings are the ultimate method of communicating, but can be the ultimate waste of time. They
are expensive, but allow two-way communications, with the opportunity to explore difficult subjects
and clarify inconsistencies and misunderstandings. Meetings also cement relationships so that follow-
up communications are more informal and productive. It is almost a prerequisite that new projects and
customers will be developed through one or more initial meetings. Teams can almost be cultivated
through regular meetings – provided they are not regarded as a waste of time or a distraction
from the task at hand. If you call a meeting, make sure that you have a clear agenda which has
been communicated in good time to all those who will be attending.
Ensure that everyone who needs to be at the meeting has been invited. Chair the meeting effectively,
so that everyone has the chance to express their views and is clear on what has been said. Take
minutes or, even better, use a secretary or junior member of staff to minute the meeting. Ensure that
these minutes are produced and circulated promptly. As a manager, take time to talk to your staff and
colleagues about topics other than work. Take an interest in their interests, but make sure that your
interest is genuine. There are few things worse than a manager who always asks whether your
children, now 18 and 15, have started school yet…
Plan the call before you make it. Have a list of points you want to raise and keep notes of what is
said. Write up the conversation immediately afterwards and file your notes. Consider following up the
call with an email or fax confirming what you understand to have been said. Sit up or stand to make
the call, especially if you need to be assertive. It is well recognised that our physical position has an
impact on the way we use the telephone. If appropriate, take the time for non work-related
conversation, but ensure that the social and business discussions are kept separate.
First published on the IET’s Management website as ‘Management Keys’, which aim to provide an
explanation of the key points within various topics, enabling you to compile a record of relevant
training material and valuable reference documents.
So, for the benefit of the socially inept, here is a short guide to 21st century communications
* Do not call your colleagues about work-related matters after office hours, on public holidays or
weekends unless its genuinely urgent. Plan your work so that you do not have to bother your
colleagues with routine stuff out of hours.
* Think about what you want to say before you go call someone. Do not call people and force them to
listen to you while you work out why you are calling.
* Do not call people from the toilet.
* Do not call people to ask where they are and then hang up, unless you are their mother.
* The acceptable limit for calling people that you're not sleeping with is one time per day. Calling
twice a day is creepy and three or more times = stalker.
* If you ARE sleeping with someone you can have one more call per day but that's all.
* Do not send more than 2 emails to a colleague in one day. Less is better.
* Do not forward email to colleagues that you yourself have not bothered to read.
* Do not email your colleagues about work related matters on the weekend. It's rude and inconsiderate.
* Do not send work-related email to your colleagues personal email accounts. Ever.
* Understand that people are not obliged to reply, no matter how much you may wish that they were.
* Accept that not everyone checks their email constantly or even daily, and that computers and phones
are often unattended, or batteries run out, or they get forgotten at home, or that maybe, some people
value peace, quiet and privacy.
The Core Rules of Netiquette are excerpted from the book Netiquette by Virginia Shea.
• Rule 1: Remember the Human
- Would you say it to the person's face?
- When you communicate through cyberspace -- via email or on discussion groups -- your words
are written. And chances are they're stored somewhere where you have no control over them.
In other words, there's a good chance they can come back to haunt you.
• Rule 2: Adhere to the same standards of behavior online that you follow in real life
- Be ethical
- Breaking the law is bad Netiquette - Netiquette mandates that you do your best to act within
the laws of society and cyberspace.
• Rule 3: Know where you are in cyberspace
- Netiquette varies from domain to domain
- Lurk before you leap - When you enter a domain of cyberspace that's new to you, take a look
around. Spend a while listening to the chat or reading the archives. Get a sense of how the
people who are already there act. Then go ahead and participate.
• Rule 4: Respect other people's time and bandwidth
- You are not the center of cyberspace - So don't expect instant responses to all your questions,
and don't assume that all readers will agree with -- or care about -- your passionate arguments.
- Rules for discussion groups
- To whom should messages be directed? (Or why "mailing list" could become a dirty word) -
People have less time than ever today, precisely because they have so much information to
absorb. Before you copy people on your messages, ask yourself whether they really need to
know. If the answer is no, don't waste their time. If the answer is maybe, think twice before
you hit the send key.
• Rule 5: Make yourself look good online
- Take advantage of your anonymity - You won't be judged by the color of your skin, eyes, or
hair, your weight, your age, or your clothing. You will, however, be judged by the quality of
your writing. For most people who choose to communicate online, this is an advantage; if they
didn't enjoy using the written word, they wouldn't be there. So spelling and grammar do count.
- Know what you're talking about and make sense - Bad information propagates like wildfire on
the net. And once it's been through two or three iterations, you get the same distortion effect as
in the party game "Operator": Whatever you originally said may be unrecognizable. In
addition, make sure your notes are clear and logical.
- Don't post flame-bait - Finally, be pleasant and polite. Don't use offensive language, and don't
be confrontational for the sake of confrontation.
• Rule 6: Share expert knowledge
- Sharing your knowledge is fun. It's a long-time net tradition. And it makes the world a better
• Rule 7: Help keep flame wars under control
- "Flaming" is what people do when they express a strongly held opinion without holding back
any emotion. Tact is not its objective. But Netiquette does forbid the perpetuation of flame
wars -- series of angry letters, most of them from two or three people directed toward each
other, that can dominate the tone and destroy the camaraderie of a discussion group. It's unfair
to the other members of the group. And while flame wars can initially be amusing, they get
boring very quickly to people who aren't involved in them. They're an unfair monopolization of
• Rule 8: Respect other people's privacy
- Of course, you'd never dream of going through your colleagues' desk drawers. So naturally you
wouldn't read their email either.
• Rule 9: Don't abuse your power
- Knowing more than others, or having more power than they do, does not give you the right to
take advantage of them.
- For example, sysadmins should never read private email.
• Rule 10: Be forgiving of other people's mistakes
- Having good manners yourself doesn't give you license to correct everyone else.
- If you do decide to inform someone of a mistake, point it out politely, and preferably by
private email rather than in public. Give people the benefit of the doubt; assume they just don't
know any better. And never be arrogant or self-righteous about it. Just as it's a law of nature
that spelling flames always contain spelling errors, notes pointing out Netiquette violations are
often examples of poor Netiquette.
Intrusive Mobile and Internet Technologies: an Etiquette for
Socially Responsible Use
by Ken Thompson
The study suggests eight useful guidelines for the considerate use of mobile phones:
1. Have your mobile off or on silent in meetings
2. Change your mobile voicemail to request text for urgent messages
3. Turn your device screens off when holding meetings in your office
4. If you are expecting an urgent call apologise and warn others in advance
5. The person you are talking to deserves your full attention
6. Hold private calls in private places
7. Break out of e-mail jail – talk to your colleagues
8. Technology is not power – it doesn't signify your importance
However in the interest of brevity and simplicity here is my discussion starter on a Polite Intrusive
Party 1. The Receiver
The two most important rights of the Receiver would seem to be “Privacy” and “Unavailability”. The
two are interrelated –
a) privacy is about not taking a call at all and
b) unavailability is about finding a convenient time to take a call.
To protect these rights there is an obligation on the sender – for example using VoiP (such as Skype)
they should follow the practice of “Ping before Ring” – i.e. messaging to establish if a VoIP call is
convenient before it is actually made.
Party 2. The Sender
The most important right of the Sender in this case would seem to be “Reasonable Response” – the
expectation of an appropriate reply in a certain timeframe dependent on the subject of the
communications and the relationship between receiver and sender.
To protect this right I suggest there is an obligation on the receiver to keep their presence information
up to date so that the sender can see when a response can be expected. Also, if possible, the receiver
should try to acknowledge that they have received the message and even better if they can offer a “by
when” for a reply.
In addition the receiver should treat seriously the act of putting somebody on their buddy list. It
would be better to decline such a request at the outset than to include someone only to neglect
communicating with them. To me putting you on my buddy list implies I am offering to communicate
with you on reasonable topics of shared interest in a reasonable timeframe. Even better if both parties
can agree expectations here.
Party 3. Engaged Parties
These are the people who may be already in a communications session with either the sender or the
receiver when the other communication happens
The two most important rights of the Engaged Parties would seem to be “Full Attention” and
a) The first is about not expecting the other party to be multi-tasking so much that they are not paying
b) The second is the expectation that the communication once started should not be fragmented
through multiple or long interruptions.
To protect these rights I suggest there is an obligation on the sender and receiver to wherever possible
avoid initiating or replying to communications whilst they are already in communications.
Party 4. Disinterested Parties
These are the people who are not in any communications session with either the sender or the receiver
but may be impacted when another communication happens. For example, a phone call ringing in a
concert hall audience!
The most important right of the Disinterested Parties would seem to be the “Non-Disruption” for
example by a loud ringing tone or by being forced to hear a conversation in which they have no part.
This seems to mostly apply to audio calls (Mobile or VoIP). To protect this right I suggest there is an
obligation on the sender and receiver to fully use their voice mail facilities on mobile phone and VoIP.
Read this article on Social Mobile research is very relevant here.
Originally written by Ken Thompson for Bioteams as "Intrusive Mobile and Internet Technologies: an
etiquette for socially responsible use" and first published on June 2 2006
About the author
Ken Thompson is a researcher, writer, and entrepreneur focusing on the world of high performance
teams, and on the transfer of the best teaming practices from the biological world. He has published an
interesting paper entitled "The Bioteaming Manifesto" which illustrates the basic principles of his
vision. Ken publishes his best articles at Bioteams.com and has a mini-site dedicated to collaboration