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Skills - Etiquette - eCommunication

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The netiquette and general communication etiquette tips which follow come largely from general experience and common sense.

The human race communicates in numerous ways, from face-to-face conversations to phone conversations [person-to-person and person-to-answering machine or voice mail] to electronic mail, to facimiles, and even through hand-written letters.

It is not always easy to know exactly which electronic method is best for any given situation. The following tidbits are presented to ease the confusion generally associated with communication dilemmas of the new millennium.


Little did Mr. Alexander Graham Bell know on that fateful March day in 1876 when he spoke his famous words, "Mr. Watson--come here--I want to see you," that during the upcoming centuries his descendants would be conveying similar messages via pagers, answering machines, and voice mail from cordless land lines, car cell phones, and office speaker /conference phones.

It is probable that neither Bell nor Watson contemplated the sometimes disagreeable social ramifications that are now associated with these types of communicators. Because we live in a fast-paced world where instant gratification is expected by many, these electronic intruders have become staples that are not always appreciated to the same degree by all modern man.

There are rules concerning their use which should not be overlooked--especially when that use is of a professional nature.

Rule #1: Phones usually are equipped with a number of alerting signals AND a vibrating mechanism. Please use the less disruptive vibration option when in a meeting or any other well-populated place. This is especially true when interviewing for employment!

Rule #2: If "on call" after official office hours, take precautionary measures when attending public functions to assure that a quick exit causes the least disruption. Whenever possible, secure an aisle or backrow seat at any public function and inform the hostess of that evening party that you may have to leave early to attend to business. Miss Manners insists that you should not even accept an invitation if you know ahead of the date that you will be "on call" and that your sudden disappearance during the event would be obvious.

Rule #3: If your phone allows for email messages, excuse yourself from your meeting or group of cohorts to reply. Nothing is more rude [except perhaps a complete oral conversation] than to completely ignore the business at hand as you hunt and peck an email answer. Either wait to reply or remove yourself from your present locale.

Assumption of Privacy
The landline that the caller is using may have the button pushed for speakerphone capacity. The cell phone or cordless model that the caller decided to use may "bleed" across open airwaves. Miss Manners suggests, therefore, that we all forego the assumption of privacy and think party-lines of olden times! Keep your conversations clear, concise, and professional.

Conference calls by speakerphone have specific rules which can alleviate problems:

  • Initially, everyone should be notified of ALL participating parties.
  • Participants should declare an intent to exit if they must leave the conversation.
  • Participants should acknowledge their return to the conversation.
  • Conversation segments inappropriate for speakerphones should be prefaced by a statement such as, "We will continue this in private." as a signal to pick up the receiver.


Phones messages are inevitable byproducts of busy business lives. Sometimes messages are left with a real, live individual such as a secretary, receptionist, or administrative assistant because the targeted party is out of the office or in a meeting, or a project deadline is imminent and time is at such a premium that the luxury of a personal chat is not feasible. It is all right to field calls using staff or voice mail or answering machines. Just remember that both the caller and the targeted individual have certain responsibilities when it comes to preparing phone messages!

Targeted Individual:
Answering machines and Voice Mail should present a professional message* to the caller explaining who the caller has reached and what is expected of them such as, "You have reached the office of Joe Blow. Please leave name, number, time of call, and brief message." A brief statement explaining the eventual availability of the targeted individual is suggested, as in: "I am out of the office until Monday morning at 8 a.m. on July 14 after which time I will return all calls."

Note: *A professional message on the answering machine of anyone currently in pursuit of new employment is a MUST! Overcome the desire to have the latest MTV hit playing in the background with a comic voiceover declaring the joke of the month!!

Just as the unavailable party is responsible for providing you with clear and concise message instructions, you should attempt to leave a succinct pre-planned message explaining who you are, exactly what you desire from, or wish to share with, the targeted party, and where you may be reached, remembering to say your full phone number including area code slowly enough that the targeted party can write it without having to replay your message.

Phone Tag:
The game of phone tag is a common occurrence in the workplace.

Sometimes business can be successfully transacted without the need for a person-to-person exchange, but this is accomplished only by complete and thorough voice-to-voice messages or instructions by all concerned parties.

Usually, after several attempts by both parties to conduct an actual person-to-person exchange of information have failed, it is advisable to leave a message suggesting specific days and times of availability to enhance the possibility of connecting with one another.

Remember that follow-up is important when phone calls become phone tag. Don't drop the ball out of frustration. By suggesting a specific day and time of availability, business can be completed successfully!

Car phones and Cell phones are the masters of mobility! However, common sense dictates that you follow these suggestions:

  • Free up your hands for driving by placing car phone in a secured holder. Why not pick up messages BEFORE you put the car in gear or if you must take a call, pull over, stop, and talk before continuing the journey.
  • Turn ringer off while shopping directly after work. Most individuals are no longer impressed by your cell phone, and many may see such store conversations as pretentious. If business is that important, perhaps you should have stayed a little longer at the office!
  • Wait until a time when the call can be placed from a landline if you are not certain the target has unlimited calling. Why not, out of simple consideration, limit business calls to business hours from business landlines if at all possible?
  • Disarm your ringer during the party at the new neighbor's housewarming or leave the phone at home. Your cell has not been surgically grafted to your physical being, and it need not accompany you wherever you go. After-hours business does NOT take precedence over social events to which you have been invited and have elected to attend!
  • Forget securing placement of any kind if you answer a call during an interview. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER leave your ringer on during an interview - either for employment or internship/co-op placement. The quickest way to alienate yourself is to put the interviewer "on hold" while you "take a call" in the middle of answering the question, "What can you tell me about yourself?" Your actions may well tell the interviewer more than you intend!


As with the “party-line” approach to office phone calls, it must be assumed that faxes and email messages will be fair game to co-workers who believe a business setting negates the social rule forbidding the reading of mail addressed to another individual. Those with a sense of business etiquette, however, will deliver the correspondence to the addressee without lingering over the text!

Ms. Manners has developed a sensible “hierarchy of formality” for the different electronic communications. Subconsciously, you are probably aware of the distinctions, but we should look at the rankings to be sure.

Faxed letters rank below hand-written notes and are seen as being slightly more formal than email. Email is slightly more polite than a phone call but is still considered an informal method of conveying a message.

What does that mean, slightly more formal, slightly more polite? It means we must look at the general structure of communication. Business letters conveyed through the postal service are still the official method of work-related communication. Formal occasions such as inaugurations, weddings, and dedications require engraved invitations because of their grave importance. A response to a letter from a friend, a message of condolence or congratulations, an invitation to an informal get-together, and a thank-you letter should all be written by hand to emphasize their importance to the communicator.

Faxed Letters
A faxed letter is slightly more formal than an email–but is still not as official as engraved or hand-written messages or those typed on company letterhead. In business, letters and other miscellaneous information are generally faxed because of expediency. Personal letters, such as congratulatory messages which are faxed, should be followed by a hand-written letter.

As with cell phone messages, faxing information costs the recipient in paper and ink. Make sure the information is sought by the addressee before transmitting unnecessary and costly documents. Try to avoid sending unnecessary text also. Use the smaller Fax Note cover post-it if you have just had a telephone or personal conversation regarding a specific transmission and really do not need to attach a detailed explanation.

Also, verify the fax number of the designated recipient. You are defeating expediency if your message meant for an individual in Ohio winds up printing out on a machine in Idaho.

Email Messages
Email messages are slightly more polite than phone conversations simply because you have taken the time to type them and because they are somewhat less intrusive. Of course the format you use when producing an email message is a contributing factor to the message’s politeness. Just because email messages are seen as very informal, you are not exempt from using appropriate business writing techniques when constructing them.

  • Continue to use a salutation even though the recipient's name is prominently displayed at the top of the page. Some declare that a "Dear" does not necessarily need to precede the target's name, but it is not considered incorrect to include it - and some recipients would even appreciate it.
  • Use a colon [never a comma] after the salutation when sending a business-related message just as you would with a business letterhead.
  • Please continue to capitalize the first letter of the first word in each sentence while using the appropriate punctuation to close each sentence.
  • Use clear, concise language avoiding the use of emote-icons, jargon, slang, and any text that could make the EEO personnel frown. [Retain the "party-line" mentality!]
  • Before hitting the Send button, make certain the "To:" has the correct addressee/s listed, the CC: and BCC: lists contain the names of only the intended recipients, and that you have an informative Subject: line.

*NOTE: Both fax and email transmissions should be reread before transmission to assure correctness. While they are considered expedient means of communication, it is the responsbility of the author not to forego exactness for expediency.

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