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E-tiquette, Mind Your P’s, Q’s and K’s PLS

Glenn O'Brien makes a few observations on digital politesse

I have a big collection of the classic etiquette books. I’ve got Emily Post’s original 1922 Etiquette, the authoritative Our Deportment from 1881, Manners and Social Usages from 1884, Good Manners for All Occasions from 1904, and even a collection of behavioral maxims collected by George Washington. These books tell us more about the period in which they were written than history books. They tell us how people thought, what they worried about and what upset them. They also remind us that the world (or at least our polite corner of it) was once a kinder, gentler place.

I do know people who still adhere to a relatively high standard of manners, but generally I get the feeling that as a society, we’re sliding down that slippery slope and that the hell to come will be something like flying economy around the world from airport to airport without end.

A general decline of manners is visible everywhere. One problem is that parents aren’t teaching their kids manners; they are too busy watching celebrities disgrace themselves on TMZ. Another issue is that changes in technology have transformed the world so fast that we haven’t had a chance to update our codes of behavior. So, in the interest of starting the discussion, I offer here a few observations on how to behave with discretion in the digital, remote, Bluetooth world. Let’s all pull together and hope for a miraculous upturn in civility.

Social networks are not society. Once upon another time of conspicuous display of wealth, in the Gilded Age, New York boasted “The Four Hundred.” That was the number that Mrs. Astor’s ballroom supposedly accommodated, and she and Ward McAllister, author of Society as I Have Found It, drew up a guest list annually of the “people who mattered.” One did not “friend” Mrs. Astor, nor did one invite her to join their network on LinkedIn. Eventually, the list was supplanted by a faintly more democratic institution known as the Social Register, which still exists. You can see a copy at Belgian Shoes on East 55th Street. Although being in the Register probably doesn’t matter quite as much as it once did, it’s still relatively exclusive. It has only sixty-eight followers on Twitter.

I generally follow Groucho Marx’s maxim: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member,” but I am on Facebook under an assumed name, so that I can spy on others. I have strenuously avoided becoming Linked In, as I feel I already have too many “contacts.” And the idea of being a contact to someone gives me the creeps. It reminds me of the ufology term contactee. My idea of a social network is Linked Out, but starting it would probably involve too many contacts and too much “networking.”

TWITTER046Networking, a clinical euphemism for schmoozing, has always struck me as a bad idea. Its inevitable result is e-mail overload and phone calls from complete strangers who are friends of friends of friends.

Mrs. Astor didn’t have this problem. In her time, all networking was done in the ballroom, and that only held 400 people. In the virtual world, we have infinite contact capacities, which is why people are always asking me, “Didn’t you get my e-mail?” I don’t know if I got your e-mail, because no matter what I do, I get too much e-mail.

Let’s have a few simple rules about e-mail. Number one: It’s rude to say thank you in an e-mail or text message if that’s all you have to say. If you and like-minded persons thank me with a separate message for every simple gesture . . . well, that could be why I got 243 e-mails yesterday. Thank you for not thanking me.

It is extremely rude to cc dozens of people. When working on projects, I often find myself cc’d on things that don’t concern me. This is another reason why I didn’t get your e-mail. It is unspeakably rude to cc a long list of people, instead of bcc’ing, or using the blind cc. I know this often happens by mistake, but for me it’s an excommunication offense. And think twice before clicking Reply All. E-vengeance awaits.

It is rude to have your corporate logo on your e-mail as an attachment. Or some stupid slogan. Not only does it confuse me about which is the real attachment, but this stuff accumulates like plastic bottles in the Pacific. Do you know how many logos, Facebook f’s and Twitter t’s you’ve sent me. What if I fined you $5 each? Would that get your attention?

It is rude to call before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m. in the time zone in which a person may reasonably expected to be present. The immediate access of mobile phones and e-mail has created a work world that never rests. I am still amazed at how many people expect that business will go on into the night and through the weekend. I find myself saying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t work on the weekends” to people who seem astounded by that. And if I dissuade an evening business caller, one whose only possible excuse is being in another time zone, with a claim that I am observing cocktail hour, I might experience what is commonly called “pushback.” Allow me to issue a warning here: After the sun has gone over the yardarm, it is possible that I have turned violent.

Someday, we will have mobile law and order. If your phone rings audibly in a theater, it should be confiscated. If it rings at a funeral, you should be arrested. If you are found guilty of excessive pocket dialing, your phone should be taken away for a commensurate period. Why not leave the damn thing on vibrate? How many times a day do you think I can listen to the Odd Couple theme? If you can’t figure out it’s vibrating, you may be experiencing deep vein thrombosis from over-computing.

Loud talkers should be forced to live outdoors, where their hog-calling tone is more suitable. Since your mobile device is held approximately one inch from your mouth, there is no reason to speak louder into it than you would to a person next to you. One must learn to distinguish between a cellular phone and a megaphone.

The addition of cameras to virtually every mobile phone means that phones can no longer boldly go wherever. If I am standing at a urinal in a men’s room, you are not allowed to talk on the phone while standing next to me, or I will assume you are spying for a celebrity genital Web site and give you an iFlush.

Twitter is a superior form of “networking” because people can’t force themselves on you there; you will only be annoyed by those whom you’ve chosen to follow or those who’ve paid some ridiculous fee to promote their cheese-stuffed-crust pizza. But even with the relative safety of Twitter, common sense applies. Don’t tweet when you’re in a condition in which you wouldn’t get behind the wheel or would be in trouble if found behind one. The good thing about Twitter is that when someone tweets too much or waxes stupid, you simply drop them, as Mrs. Astor would, without notification.

When tweeting or texting it’s best to avoid expressions that resemble license plates (2G2BT—“too good to be true”) or that are in common use by teen babysitters (PIMP—“peeing in my pants”). Better to stick with classics such as LAMF, FUBAR or AMDG (ad majorem Dei gloriam). And when it comes to emoticons, DMMCOTAKU (“Don’t make me come over there and kill you”).

Consider the venerable answering machine. I had totally forgotten about answering services until I was given the opportunity to open one of Andy Warhol’s time capsules at the Warhol Museum and found lots of pink slips in it from his answering service, the very same that I had used so many decades ago. What a great thing services were. One even formed friendships with the operators, who spoke perfect English and were not located on a distant subcontinent. Yes, once upon a time, we put the service on when we went out and enjoyed blissful unreachability while a polite human being actually answered the phone and took a message. This was reported to you when you called in, and they sent you the written messages weekly in a big stack. Opening Andy’s box was like remembering a time when the air was fresher. Today, we deal with robots, whether they are answering machines or voice mail, and they are one more dehumanizing factor grinding us down en masse.

The worst greeting messages are those that play a little concert before telling you to leave a message, as if you needed some really lo-fi Muzak to help you compose yourself before recording a message. Or worse, they are some sort of joke. Any attempt at levity by robots is inexcusable. If it’s funny once, it will be hateful the second time. Don’t waste even five seconds of my time. And be careful what you say. My personal supreme irritant is someone saying, “You have reached John Doe.” If I had reached John Doe, I would be conversing with him, not leaving a message. Duh!

My favorite answering message ever was that of Chris Blackwell, who probably still has it on his mobile. He said, “Hello.” And then after a pause long enough for you to actually start talking to him, he said, “Leave a message.” It was perhaps unintentional, but still a splendid coup of one-upmanship. Generally, however, the best message is “Leave a message.” And if you don’t often check your incoming, indicate this tendency in your outgoing.

Should you call at all? Maybe. But sometimes it’s better to put it in writing. If you have information to impart that doesn’t require a response, text instead of calling, by all means. I might be doing something extremely important—like eating, sleeping or planning revenge. BG