My Rules of Polite Digital Communication When it comes to e-manners, too many of us are boors. Follow these simple rules, to make sure you don't become one yourself.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – The last thing I'd want to be known as is the Digital Mr. Manners (as opposed to the Master of the Digital Manor). But I must speak up! Every day that goes by I find myself getting more frustrated trying to communicate with other people, even though we now have a multitude of devices and services that are supposed to help us express ourselves more effectively. The problem: The general business population still needs lessons in the proper ways to handle our contemporary modes of communication. So here are the basics, my do's and don'ts of modern communication.
Underlying all good digital manners is one simple truth: You must read the manual. Take the time to learn your voice mail, cell phones, e-mail, fax, whatever. It's fundamentally rude and irresponsible to expect other people to accommodate the fact that you're too lazy or "important" to figure out how to use your devices.
Cell phone: We all complain about people who carry cell phones into restaurants, concerts, and other public arenas without having learned how to silence the phone's ringer. They scramble to find the phone, fumble with it, and finally turn it off, having distracted the people around them and cut off their caller. Then there are those people who answer their telephones in the middle of lunch, disturbing everybody around them without a thought!
These boors just don't know better. Every cell phone has a simple method for turning the ringer off. Learn how to do it.
Voice mail: Let's start with a problem related to cell phones--multiple voice-mail boxes. I can't tell you how often I leave the same message twice. What a waste! Unless you have a phone like my nasty Sprint one, you can forward cellular voice mail into a work voice-mail box. Another reasonably polite option is never to enable voice mail on the cell phone, thus forcing callers to dial the mailbox you check regularly. You might also leave an outgoing greeting directing them to a mailbox you check.
A second thing I hate is getting a voice-mail box on which an assistant has recorded the outgoing message. When I hear, "Hi, you've reached the voice mail for Joe Blow, etc.," and it's not Joe Blow's voice, my first thought is that his assistant will likely transcribe what I say, so why bother leaving anything substantial? If you insist on having your assistant do this, please have him tell callers whether you will actually hear the message.
Third, please, please, please (please!) tell callers how to get past the outgoing message. Every voice-mail system has a command that lets callers bypass the message. Our voice mail at work uses the # key, but your voice-mail system may send callers into voice-mail hell if they press #. If you learn the proper command, you can save your callers valuable time.
Fourth, here's a point addressing those wonks who record a daily message on their mailbox. About a third of the time I find myself listening to a message for a previous day, because you people missed a day. Hey, relax. Just record one outgoing message. Let it stand. Change it when something really big happens. Okay?
Electronic mail: The first thing to do with e-mail is to see if your IT organization will help standardize your company's e-mail addresses. Most companies, for some stupid reason, don't list employee e-mail addresses on their Websites. So if I don't have someone's address, I find myself guessing; the only benefit to this is that e-mail is fast, so my wrong addresses get rejected immediately. But smart IT departments set up their e-mail systems to accept several common addressing protocols for e-mail (first initial plus last name; first.last; first_last; firstlast; and so forth).
On a more personal basis, please learn to use your e-mail program's auto-reply feature! This is like the outgoing message for your voice mail, but almost no one uses it day to day. You can set up your e-mail program to send an automatic reply that tells the person writing you what the chances are that you'll respond. I don't have one on my FORTUNE e-mail address, in which I would state that I get far too much e-mail to respond personally and that I hate it when people add me to list servers without asking. But I would if FORTUNE gave me an e-mail account I could manage directly.
Personal digital assistant: With a Palm PDA you can beam your own data to other Palm users. I've received close to 100 business cards via this cool feature. But too frequently the sender fills his record with useless data. Keep e-business cards to the basics, please.
One more don't: I keep telling my wife, Charlotte, to quit playing solitaire on her PDA or computer when I'm talking to her. (She keeps telling me that I need to say something interesting to get her attention. Yes, dear!)
(Reading back over this column, I realize that I may sound a little Pollyanna-ish. I'm sure there are readers who intentionally make themselves hard to contact, thinking that life is more efficient if they aren't bothered by communication from hoi polloi. Then again, those people probably didn't read this far in the column. So the rest of us know what schmucks they are, right?)
STEWART ALSOP is a partner with New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm. Except as noted, neither he nor his partnership has a financial interest in the companies mentioned. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column may be bookmarked online at www.fortune.com/technology/alsop/.