Communication etiquette was much simpler when there were only a few different ways to get in touch with people. There were situations that called for writing a letter, making a phone call, or meeting face-to-face—and there were a handful of standards that dictated proper form for each medium. But today, people have access to dozens of different apps and channels, and if you want to prevent communication problems, you’ll need to know how to handle them politely and appropriately.
While there aren’t many formal rules to go by, and the etiquette for individual apps changes as frequently as each app updates, there are some general guidelines you can follow to improve your etiquette overall.
First off, there are some golden rules you should follow, no matter what kind of apps you’re using, and these apply to almost any situation that demands communication:
- Be flexible. Don’t lock yourself into one communication channel or one way of doing things. Instead, commit to adaptability, and be willing to change things up for someone who prefers a different system.
- Keep your emotions and impulses in check. Speaking out of anger or desperation can come back to haunt you—especially given the permanence of today’s online communications. Always allow your emotions to cool before sending anything.
- Consider your timing. Just because an app allows you to communicate with someone at any time doesn’t mean you should count on reaching them 24/7. Learn to time your messages in a way that’s as convenient as possible for the other person.
- Reflect. Mirroring is a powerful tool that can make you more likeable—and it’s especially handy in today’s ambiguous field of app-based communication. Follow the other person’s lead if you’re not sure how to interact.
- Choose your words carefully. Word choice is more important than ever, since your words are permanent in many communication channels. Consider your phrasing, and double check everything you write.
Wait for the Other Person to Initiate
One of the best things you can do is simply wait for the other person to initiate conversation, when possible. If meeting someone for the first time and exchanging information, they may give you one piece of contact info, such as a phone number or email address. You can bet this is their preferred method of communication. If they give you multiple, like if they hand you a business card, wait to see if there’s a communication method they prefer; if they prefer email, they’ll send you an email before calling you. When possible, defer to the other person’s preferred mode of communication.
Choose the Right Channel
If it’s on you to choose a communication medium, make a choice based on the following factors:
- Urgency. How urgent is your message? Is this medium designed to give instant notifications? Is it something the other person can respond to at their leisure?
- Privacy. Consider the sensitivity of the message and the privacy of this platform. For example, social media posts and encrypted emails are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
- Conciseness. Some platforms, like Twitter or text messaging, are advantageous for their conciseness. How brief is your message? How much dialogue is this going to generate?
- Personality. Are you able to convey tone, body language, or personality through this medium? Is that important for this message?
- Permanence. How permanent are messages in this medium? Will your recipient need to reference your message in the future?
Limit Your Channels and Be Consistent
Generally speaking, you should limit the number of apps you use to communicate with people. If you reach out to a coworker using a different app each time, you’ll have several different running threads; if the coworker needs to reference something you discussed a week ago, they’ll have to jump from app to app, trying to find the message. Additionally, try to be consistent; if email is your “primary” medium, try to keep it as your default, unless the circumstances demand something different.
Learn Channel-Specific Etiquette When You Can
Finally, try to learn channel-specific etiquette when possible. Email etiquette and phone etiquette are must-know, and have had plenty of history to become developed and generally agreed-upon. With social apps and instant message platforms, etiquette is less stable. There may or may not be hard rules to follow, so look at how other people are using the app, and try to mimic their habits.
You don’t need to be a perfectly polished communicator to remain respectful of the people you speak with, nor do you need to know all the unspoken rules of every app you use. As long as you’re remaining aware of your communicative content and are learning from the people around you, you’ll be in a good position.