Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Email Etiquette

Settling into 21st Century technology is not without its challenges. It’s not as though developing the computer is akin to discovering a new variety of apple (no pun intended); life on planet Earth has changed forever. With big changes come long periods of adjustment. We are currently in the throes of just such a period now. Just when we think we’ve got everything figured out about one aspect of technology, another new issue springs up.

Such is the case today with email etiquette. Because emails travel almost at the speed of light – who knows, maybe even faster – many of us have come to believe that responses to our emails should be equally lightening fast. This is, however, simply not the case. And this annoys some people almost to the point of distraction.

I received an email recently from a close friend who was pointing out that I hadn’t responded to the emails he had sent recently. Although this was at face value a simple statement of fact, I could feel the irritation this friend was harboring because the anticipated response was not forthcoming in a manner that he felt was timely. Whether his intention was to lay a guilt trip on me or not, that was the effect it had. As I have suggested many times before, we must take responsibility for our feelings, so laying blame on my friend for my feelings of guilt is not appropriate. This exchange does however point out a dynamic that may recalculate our approach to email.

Here are a few thoughts.

If you are going to have an email address and you are going to share it with friends and colleagues, you need to be prepared to monitor it. Allowing emails to build up unanswered is annoying in some cases. Not all emails need a response. I get a lot of emails forwarded to me by friends thinking I will be entertained. I receive numerous announcements and news flashes, none of which need any action at all. I do receive emails however, which do require a timely response, sometimes an immediate one. Those are the ones I focus on, especially if my day is full. Although such emails often require more attention than I can immediately give them, a quick response letting the sender know that their email has been received, and will be answered as quickly as possible, will usually relieve any anxiety.

Don’t give people ‘stuff to do’. Unless you are giving a directive because that is your role as boss, mother, coach, etc., we cannot be expected to just drop everything we are doing to answer an email. By lowering our expectations on when or how an email we send out will be answered, we relieve pressure from both sides. Remember that we have very little idea of what is occupying someone else’s time. Chalk up tardy responses to more pressing demands.

Important emails should still be handled as quickly as possible; even if it means writing to tell the sender that a complete response will be coming shortly. Emails are here to stay. Adjusting to a life with emails is the reality for many of us, but not for all of us. Those of us who skate through life without the ‘benefit’ of technology are not to be scorned. Frankly, I find it refreshing. But for those of us who are entrenched in technology, following established protocols is best. For example, we should try to respond to emails within 24 hours of their receipt. Any communication initiated by email should be answered by email, including business correspondence, invitations, and solicitations we wish to acknowledge.

Those of us who delight in sharing emails about matters of personal interest, political views, or breathtaking photography should not expect a response, nor is one required. If we no longer want to be subjected to such emails, we need to speak up and ask that we be removed from future email lists. Although we may be reticent to request such removal for fear of offending the sender, keep in mind that you are the one being offended in the first place. Alternatively, deleting such emails or tossing them into your junk folder may curb the deluge of such emails. There is always email spam or blocker, too.

We are all still adjusting to this new form of communication. As with most things in life, intentions are rarely meant to be inconsiderate, annoying, or inconvenient. Knowing that a mailbox full of unanswered emails can produce anxiety and irritation in us, let’s do our best not to add to the problem. Think before pressing the send button!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Rushed Communications

A friend overheard a telephone conversation I was having. I ended the conversation with, “OK, bye”, and promptly hit the hang up button, thus ending the call. My friend then said to me that I had hung up the phone too abruptly, not allowing the other person to say goodbye properly. A short discussion ensued. I quickly pointed out that one of the results of hearing only one side of a conversation is that you are not in a position to make such a judgment. My rather tenacious friend was relentless in his insistence that I had been rude. My response is to write this column, which addresses the dynamic of communication.

Clear communication is crucial to maintaining a healthy society. In our rushed schedules, clarity can take a back seat to efficiency. While efficiency has its place, if our message is not clear – and more importantly, if our tone is in any way dismissive – our efficiency will have been wasted. Overhearing a phone call does not provide us with the perspective to be able to assess clarity or tone. Nonetheless, my friend raised a very good point, and in rerunning the overheard conversation in my mind, I suddenly realized that perhaps I had been too quick with hanging up the phone, thereby not allowing the person on the other end of the line to offer his own goodbye.

When speaking on the phone, we cannot see facial expressions, hand gestures or any body language. Therefore, we rely on spoken words, and the tone in which they are delivered to arrive at our interpretation and understanding of the message. The written word presents even further challenges to clarity because we cannot hear the tone of voice. The importance of tone cannot be overstated. There are even software programs designed to measure tone. Delivering a message with compassion and understanding can sound far different from one filled with disappointment or sorrow.

We know how we feel when we receive an email or letter leaving us pondering the real intention of the message. We scratch our heads and often overthink what the author had in mind. Given the way the human brain is wired for safety and survival, our minds tend to reel with negative thoughts, almost none of which ever actually happen. Similarly, how often do we hang up the phone, still wondering what just happened during that call?

When we speak on the phone, we need to be more mindful of completing our thoughts clearly, and to be sure the other person has the same opportunity. Take a few moments to say a proper goodbye. After all, communicating by telephone is different than by email, text, or letter. Many of us receive unwanted solicitation calls and we have slipped into the habit of the quick hang up. We must be sure not to engage in that same speedy exit with our friends or business colleagues. Slowing down can be challenging. However, if we want to be sure our intentions are properly and appropriately conveyed, slowing down can be very helpful.

We must also focus on the clarity of our message. Have you noticed that people don’t quite understand what you mean? They have trouble following directions because the instructions could be interpreted in more than one way. We make the assumption that people understand what we mean without giving them the full story. This is another example of just how dangerous assumptions can be. Furthermore, not only are directions not followed correctly, in order to make things right, we must invest our time – sometimes quite a lot of it.

This is a two way street, to be sure. If someone asks me to complete a task, it is incumbent on me to be sure I understand the directions. “Oh, I thought he would have known” is a dangerous presumption. Only we know what is going on in our minds. We do not know what others are experiencing or thinking at the moment unless they tell us or we ask. Likewise, if we do not communicate clearly what is on our mind, no one will know. We are not psychics. We may have intuition, but this is not a substitute for clearly stated facts.

We will miscommunicate from time to time. We are human beings and making mistakes is part of our condition. When we do mess up, we need to have compassion for ourselves and for anyone who has been swept up in the whirlwind. We need to be forgiving and make allowances for misunderstandings that result from acting on assumptions. Let’s not be so quick to find fault with how others may have ‘done us wrong’ when their intentions were likely quite the opposite. Most importantly, we must take responsibility for any misunderstandings. Taking the high road, and shouldering more of the responsibility than we may feel is actually ours, will place us in a position of strength. From here, we can bring things back in balance. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Funeral Etiquette

A reader sent me the following request.

“My husband passed away last month.  At the wake, some people in the line talked to me excessively long, and two ladies even talked to each other about their inconvenient shopping experiences, while I just stood there.  Can you please address this touchy subject?”

Funerals can indeed be challenging. Some people behave appropriately and others do not. Many people just don't know what to do at a wake or funeral. Their nerves take over and behaviour can become inappropriate. Others have never been schooled in proper funeral etiquette. Think about why you are at the wake. For instance, no one is interested in any inconvenience you may have endured to attend this wake or funeral. Personal feelings and or experiences need to be put aside for the moment. You are present to pay your respects to the deceased and his or her family.

Because grieving is such a personal experience, we each process it differently. This may contribute to the fact that no two funerals are ever exactly alike. There needs to be certain flexibility for people to express their emotions in their own personal ways. This flexibility needs our respect and support, no matter how different it may be from how we may handle such situations in our own way.

When we attend a wake, we should turn our primary attention to supporting the family and close friends of the deceased. Mixed with this is our own sorrow and the grief we may be experiencing. Supporting friends and expressing our condolences, and saying our own last farewells makes for a very emotional time. We need to try to be respectful of the immediate family, and resist turning attention to ourselves.

When in line to express our condolences, we should keep conversation to a minimum and very quiet. Focus on memories and the relationship we will miss. We are part of a larger community of well-wishers and mourners whose collective strength helps buoy the family in this time of need. Therefore, pay attention to the progress of the receiving line while progressing through it. There is no reason to hold things up for idle chatter of a personal nature. Keep your remarks to one or two sentences and move on.  Receiving lines are not the place to share heavy emotional thoughts. Remember there are likely many people behind you to want to pay their respects. Try not to do anything to add to an already difficult time.

Other considerations make for a respectful celebration of life. Whether the wake or funeral is in a church or not, our level of respect should remain the same. How we dress is one of the several ways we can show our respect. I hear a lot of negative comments on the way people dress. Clean clothes are a must - a suit and tie for gentlemen, and a dress for ladies. Blue jeans, t-shirts and ball caps have no business at a wake. Ladies should wear a hat when inside a church, but men must never wear one indoors.

There can be extenuating circumstances. It is acceptable not to be dressed in your best if you have left your job to attend a wake or service, and changing clothes is not an option. Paying one’s respects is more important than what clothes one wears. However, if the option of dressing appropriately is possible, take the time to make the effort. People appreciate it.

Talking in church is a bad habit and ought to be avoided. A funeral is a time for quiet contemplation not a chance for a chat with a friend.   A funeral represents the time set aside by the family to honour the person who has died. Socializing can certainly be done after the service. Be sensitive to the people around you and be quiet.

Snapping photographs and taking selfies at a wake or funeral is also not appropriate. I recall this faux pas made the headlines during a well-publicized funeral. Again, be aware of how disrespectful drawing attention to yourself is during a service honouring a deceased friend. Wakes are solemn affairs. Most people attending are in a contemplative state of mind. Interrupting this quietude is insensitive and rude.

A handwritten note is a great way to convey sentiments of a personal nature. If you write a note ahead of time, there will likely be a place for condolence cards at the wake. Cards may also be sent after the service. Unlike thank you cards, which are sent out immediately after a gift is received, condolence cards may arrive a month later.

Our thoughts are first and foremost with the bereaved. Our own mourning is appropriately done privately.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Cell Phones and Texting are Hazardous to Safe Driving

Worth repeating. This is a column that I wrote a number of years ago, but never appeared on social media. Today, texting still kills.

Between an influx of questions to my inbox about cell phone etiquette and texting, and the latest plea from Oprah Winfrey to stop using these devices while driving, I decided to address this important issue from the point of view of doing the right thing. As I have repeatedly expressed in previous columns, etiquette is based on common sense. In the case of texting while driving, this is a total lack of common sense. Anything that distracts a driver of a motor vehicle from his full attention to the road is dangerous, and potentially deadly. It is dangerous to him, to the passengers in his car and to any other passengers in other vehicles sharing the same road. I think we can all agree that safety should be the highest priority when we are behind the wheel of a car.

It has been proven that the brain's activities are focused differently when multi tasking. Talking on the phone qualifies as a task and is not related to driving. Some will be quick to argue that there is no difference between speaking on a hand held phone than talking to a fellow passenger. This is incorrect and ridiculous. The person with whom you are speaking on a cell phone is probably unaware that you are driving; is certainly unaware of the road or traffic conditions; and is totally incapable of being another set of eyes for you while navigating the roadways. The person sitting in the car can stop talking or call attention to something missed by the driver i.e. a potential hazard, etc.

When I was gathering content for this article, I asked a friend about his feelings on this subject. He said that he agreed with the basic premise, but that he had a business and he had to talk on the phone, or he would lose business. He also went on to inform me that it is against the law in many places to pull off to the side of the road except in the case of an emergency, and that I had better check my facts before passing out advice. What he failed to mention is that it is illegal in many places to use a hand held cell phone while driving. I smiled and nodded thankfully and conceded that he had raised some good points. Then I began to think about this whole picture because it was flawed in my mind. The scary part of his arguments is that they are what many cell phone users feel - they are entitled to do.

This is where I employed common sense and the wisdom and pleas of Ms. Winfrey. We’re really dealing here with a matter of priorities. Life itself does take precedence over everything else. Very few people have business, which is so urgent that a phone call cannot be returned or handled later in the day. If you are responding to a medical emergency, natural disaster, or catastrophe and must get in touch with the necessary parties, these are legitimate reasons to have to use a cell phone. Surely one's life or the life of other people would never, ever be considered less important. I think this points out one of the biggest problems of cell phones and PDAs today. People suddenly are so important that their phones must be answered immediately. This is actually a snap shot of self-importance. 

People have a distorted sense of reality. As a result of this egotistical view of the world, we show incredible disrespect for those around us. Last week I discussed the rudeness of private conversations in public places. Now you can add cars to the list of places not to have conversations on the phone. This extensive use of cell phones is indicative of how out of control society is in terms of its humanity.
Texting takes distraction to a whole other level. It is not dissimilar from fidgeting and looking for hidden controls or anything else that takes your eye off the road. I experienced this first hand while driving and looking for a heater control while driving on an icy road. It took literally a split second and the Land Cruiser was off the road and upside down in a ditch. We were lucky that no one in the car was hurt or killed. I will tell you that experiencing such a traumatic accident first hand changes a person's point of view in a hurry and permanently.

One friend of mine says that if someone wants to drive by themselves and fidget with the radio, or chat on the phone that is one thing; but if she's going to be in the car, it's not going to happen. That's one viewpoint, but does not take into account other travelers or the precious life of the driver.

It's clear that these thoughtless and reckless driving distractions and behaviors will be outlawed soon. However, it does not take a law to engage common sense. Think about how precious life is and how many things we have for which to be grateful. Think about how our actions can affect others. If we take the time to think about these simple truths, respecting one another on the roadways is pretty easy. Sadly there are many people who dial up the phone or begin texting as soon as they get in the car, much the way some people light up a cigarette, chew gum, apply mascara and drink coffee while driving. Unfortunately, the phone is even more dangerous than cigarettes. Maybe one day soon common sense will be more common and we will do the right thing.