We still need Emily Post in the digital age

In the age of the tweet, the text, and the wearable camera, there's still reason to take an extra few seconds to be polite

Thirty minutes or so after I finish writing this post, I'll get a short email from my editor (yes, we still have those at InfoWorld), and chances are it will contain just one word: "Thanks." The email serves two purposes: It lets me know I can go to lunch, and it shows a bit of appreciation for my work -- and that makes me feel good.

But if you believe New York Times tech writer Nick Bilton, I should be irked, not pleased. In an attention-grabbing story the other day with the print headline "Thanks, Don't Bother," Bilton writes: "Some people are so rude. Really, who sends an email or text that just says 'Thank you'?" He wasn't being ironic.

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I don't know Bilton, and I suspect he's a decent guy, but I have to agree with the hundreds of people who commented on the Times website, calling him rude, ungrateful, and self-centered. Bilton, of course, is free to be as annoying as he chooses. The issue here isn't his manners or the lack of them. It is communication and etiquette in the digital age.

Technology has changed; human emotions have not. We communicate in ways our parents never imagined. But my mom's insistence that I write a thank-you note when someone gave me a present ("Thanks for the Erector set, Uncle Boris!") or did me a substantial favor ("Thanks for letting me crash at your place when I came to town on short notice!") would be as valid today as it was then. I may perform that chore by email or maybe voicemail (a technology Bilton hates), but I do it. I have yet to be reprimanded by someone on the receiving end of my politeness.

The point of etiquette is not to act like a stuffed-shirt "Downton Abbey" aristocrat. It has to do with treating others well. "Good manners have much to do with the emotions. To make them ring true, one must feel them, not merely exhibit them," Amy Vanderbilt once wrote. She had a point. (Vanderbilt was a mid-20th-century etiquette guru contemporary to the more famous Emily Post.)

It's all about context
I'm no Luddite. Texting can be an excellent way to save time or to cut through the clutter of email if the message is short. "Hey," I'll text a friend, "I just parked and will be there in 5 minutes." That's perfect. There's no need to make a phone call, and now that my iPhone has pretty good speech-to-text capabilities, I don't even need to stop and tap out the message.

If I were really late, though, I'd call. Not that the content of the message would be all that different from a text, but I'd be able to apologize and sound sincere.

Bilton rails against people who send a text to say they've sent an email. But many of us get hundreds of emails a day and don't have time to check our inboxes every few minutes. If I've sent an email that needs urgent attention, I will sometimes alert the recipient with a short text. What I've done is leverage two forms of electronic communication. My email is long enough to make a complex point; my text is immediate enough and concise enough to alert someone without demanding much time or attention from the recipient. That's both polite and efficient.

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