New York Times technology writer Nick Bilton had a little bit of a freakout on Sunday over the changing rules of Internet communication, from email and voicemail to giving helpful advice and, yes, saying "thank you" to another human being. And the Internet communicated its displeasure, calling out Bilton for getting a little too grumpy in his diatribe: Is a thank-you note really that offensive?
Nonetheless, the cranks of modern etiquette are out there, deeming rude what so many others call common courtesy. Because when it comes to correspondence in the digital age, the rules bend for certain kinds of adopters, apparently: "Some people, especially older ones, appreciate a thank-you message. Others, like me, want no reply," Bilton writes. It's true: Even if this particular etiquette denier needs to take a chill pill, the "right" way to reach out to people has become more complex. Let's sort this out:
The One and Only Appropriate Use of Voicemail
Bilton calls voicemail "another impolite way of trying to connect with someone." Now "impolite" is a bit strong, but audio messages do venture on annoying these days. Voicemail puts an unnecessary burden on its recipient: a long message requires time and attention we have less and less of anymore. And yet, they endure. Here's the best way to handle voicemail now:
Sender: People who leave voicemails should expect that a large percent of the time they will never reach a person's ear.
Recipient: It's totally okay to ignore all voicemails — except for ones from parents, who probably leave the majority of the archaic messages anyway. While 99.9 percent of mom or dad's ramblings are benign, the nagging guilt of disregard is hard enough to ignore. But what if it's an emergency? Plus, these too-long banalities are fun to make fun of: Who hasn't told their friends a "hilarious" story regarding his or her out-of-touch folks' two-minute-long message? "She goes: 'Hi, it's mom.' And I'm like, 'I know, mom. Caller-ID!" Laughter ensues.
Solutions: For those parents who want to stay hip to things: stop leaving voicemails. Call, hang up, send a text. But since that's asking far too much, this one's on the receiver. If you don't have visual voicemail — the native function on the iPhone that lets you pick and choose voicemails by sender — then sign up through your carrier, because a couple bucks a month will save you the hassle of catching up every once in a while. For those who really can't be bothered, take a look at Google Voice's voicemail transcriptions. They're not exactly the most accurate, but the service translates everything fast enough, and directly to your Gmail, that you get the picture without having to listen on and on.
Thank-You Note Damage Control
"Who sends an email or text message that just says 'Thank you'?" wonders Bilton, who gets a little snippy when someone sends a short, polite, and altogether relatively non-invasive message. He sounds a little harsh, is what everyone's saying — and maybe he's taking this all a bit too seriously. But still!
Sender: Daniel Post Senning, a great-great-grandson of Emily Post and a co-author of the 18th edition of Emily Post's Etiquette, suggests that you "think about who the relationship is with." So, like, if you're emailing back and forth with Nick Bilton, for example, don't you dare send him a thank-you message. But it's hard to know how any individual (aside from Nick Bilton, of course) will react at any given moment. So, go situation-by-situation: After a job interview, for example, it might hurt more to not send a message. Or after someone without a lot of time on their hands gives you some advice. Or acts of unnecessary kindness. Or, you know, big gifts. Otherwise, defer to not sending a thank-you at all. (This is especially the case for birthday messages on your Facebook wall.)
Recipient: Chill out. It doesn't take that much effort to read a thank-you message and move on. "You're welcome" is not necessary, but that doesn't mean a thank-you isn't nice every once in a while.
Solutions: Write a Sunday-afternoon blog post on the New York Times website telling everyone how much you hate gratitude. Or, you know, thank someone in person the next time you see them.
To Google or Not to Google?
Bilton writes: "In the age of the smartphone, there is no reason to ask once-acceptable questions: the weather forecast, a business phone number, a store's hours." If Google has the answer, is it rude to ask someone questions? No, of course not.
Sender: If you're just looking for hard information, it's best to Google. But sometimes people ask questions to eminently Google-able answers just to make conversation or show they care about a person — and that's... okay. Baratunde Thurston, for example, complained to Bilton about a friend texting him for his South by Southwest schedule. "I don't even know how to respond to that," Thurston said. "The answer would be so long. There's no way I’m going to type out my schedule in a text." Maybe that's not the point. Perhaps this friend wanted to acknowledge Thurston's SXSW "fame" without fawning?
Recipient: Nobody expects Thurston to type out his entire schedule. He could have directed this friend to the SXSW site. Or replied with something that didn't exactly answer the question. Unlike ignoring a "thank you," which signals the end of a conversation, ignoring a question is straight-up rude. So, for best results, do something. Give answers. Be creative. Be direct. Be aware of new ways to get the best answers.
Solutions: If making conversation really bothers you, sending someone to "Let Me Google That for You" is the most passive agressive way to tell someone that their inquiry was dumb:
Gently nudging someone to useful tech tools, however, is a less prickish way to go. "Weather Spark says the forecast for Monday's game is sunny and 60 degrees" or "I'm speaking a bunch, but the SXSW GO app might have a full list with times and locations," would have sufficed.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.