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How to get respect with good manners online

Hint: If you wouldn’t shout at people in person, DON’T SHOUT AT THEM ONLINE.

Dr. David Snowball

With the rise of computer-mediated communication, your every decision is being judged by tens to hundreds of people. Good manners are no longer just about respect, they’re about professional survival.

When you communicate using the Internet, there are two things that you’ve always got to keep in the back of your mind: (1) nothing is private, nothing is secret and (2) you’re going to be misunderstood. The only question is, how badly?

Here are 10 tips to decrease your risk and increase your respect:

1. Observe the 15-minute rule. Each email, text or phone interruption costs us about 15 minutes of productive time. Only send a message if you’re sure it’s worth 15 minutes.

2. Step away from the "send" button (especially the "reply to all" button). More people are undone by hasty, heated replies than anything else. Once you’ve composed your snappy response, get up and walk away from your computer. Count to 10and ask yourself, "Am I about to do something stupid?"

3. Assume your boss is watching. British researchers found that 43% of email was not business related, leading to a loss of about two weeks of work time per person per year. Your boss has a moral right to assume you’re working during your work hours, a legal right to check on whether you are, and access to technology which allows a member of management to see everything that appears on your screen.

4. Use formatting to clarify, not to impress. Cute messages with four colors, three fonts and a twirling pixie may satisfy your creative urge, but they don’t help your reader. Strip out the clutter, use a highly readable font such as Trebuchet, carefully underline requests for specific action.

5. Don’t forward it if you haven’t confirmed it. Almost everything forwarded to you via email is a hoax. Forwarding it again says "I’m the sort of person who believes this stuff." Unless you’ve taken to time confirm the content from a credible source, don’t stake your reputation on it.

6. Do nothing on the Internet that you wouldn’t do in person. The imagined anonymity and impersonality of mediated communication leads us to do things online that we’d never be foolishly enough to do in person. Think of Brett Favre’s recent photo adventure and ask, "Would he be stupid enough to expose himself in person to a female reporter?" No. If you wouldn’t shout at people in person, DON’T SHOUT AT THEM ONLINE. If you wouldn’t call someone a "moron" in person, don’t refer to them that way online. If you wouldn’t walk around with the November issue of Naughty Nymphettes under your arm, don’t have it on your screen.

7. Respond now. Serious messages to you signal the fact that someone needs your help in order to do their job. Answer the inquiry as soon as you receive it. Even if you don’t have a complete answer, acknowledge receipt of the question and explain how you’ll handle it.

8. Focus! Pay attention! Multi-tasking is a myth. It’s a lie. It’s a delusion. Every researcher to examine the question makes the same finding: if you do two things at once, you screw up both of us and take more time than if you’d done them separately. If you’re on the phone, don’t stare at your monitor. If you’re responding to an email, don’t toggle back and forth to your browser.

9. Turn off technology whenever you need to be productive. More and more companies have discovered the secret to high productivity, fewer long evenings and better morale: Disconnect your workforce when you need them to focus. That means no open browsers, no email, no in-person interruptions and no smartphones when you’ve assembled a team with a task.

10. Set a good example. Managers who preach efficiency and focus need to demonstrate it. If you don’t follow the best practices, I can guarantee that not one of your subordinates will.

For further information, see Thomas Jackson, Ray Dawson and Darren Wilson, "The Cost of Email Interruption" Journal of Systems and Information Technology, 5 (1), 81-92, 2001 or Joe Robinson, "E-mail is Making You Stupid," Entrepreneur Magazine - March 2010.

Author David Snowball is a professor in Communication Studies at Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill. A portion of this essay appeared recently in the Quad-City Business Journal.