How to be Rude to People you've Never Met, or How the Medium Defines Etiquette

February 16, 2015

We’re in an age of rapidly evolving technology, and a lot of us are struggling to keep up with the pace of change.

Different mental models apply to different means of communication, and most of those mental models date from a pre-digital age.

When digital natives and digital immigrants meet, there can be frustrating culture clashes.

For example, the person who initiates an instant messenger conversation by saying hello and then waiting for a response. They’re framing the interaction based on a mental model of a conversation. You wouldn’t barge into someone’s office and ask them a question without some preliminary pleasantries - that would be the actions of the rudest kind of pompous arse.

However, to the recipient who’s been distracted from their maker’s schedule this is intensely frustrating, especially if they’re juggling multiple IM conversations. If your mental model of an IM chat is a series of texts or post-it notes, the other person is behaving absurdly - wasting your time by distracting you without giving you the reason for the distraction, failing to realise that the medium is asynchronous. What kind of lunatic doesn’t get to the point on a post-it note? Especially across time zones, there’s no point in waiting for an acknowledgement - by the time the person responds, the sender may well have clocked off for the day.

On the face of it, my position on this might seem contradictory. I rail against text-speak and unnecessary acronyms. I can’t abide management-speak. I’m a tiresome grammar pedant. Don’t these things mean that I’m a traditionalist? Surely the kind of person who is irritated by email signatures that just say “Best” or “Rgds” would be the kind of person who stands by the need to be polite.

But the point is that the etiquette depends on the medium. I’m trying to figure out whether or not to shoehorn in a Marshall McLuhan reference here, but it probably doesn’t make sense. Obviously spoken language differs from written language. More than that, though, just as spoken language differs depending on the social context, so does written language.

In the same way that there are TEFL books about email English, perhaps there will eventually be books about how to communicate on instant messenger or social media. For all I know, perhaps there already are. But by the time we’ve got used to everything enough that everyone’s got enough of a sense of what’s appropriate to write the book, things will have already moved on.