Communicating in the electronic age

Cell phones, pagers, voice mail and e-mail are among the most lauded inventions of the 20th century, godsends that allow on-the-go individuals to communicate with business associates, friends and family members at any time, at any place in the world.

No more waiting at a desk to take an important call. No more busy signals or endless minutes of waiting for a real person to answer a ringing telephone. E-mail even eliminates the ringing telephone, allowing users to send and respond to messages at their convenience without sacrificing speed.

But high-tech communications gadgets and systems have created problems of their own. The ring of cell phones and beep of pagers interrupt meetings, movies, concerts and meals in fine restaurants. Voice mailboxes are filled with unintelligible messages and rambling diatribes. And e-mail recipients are spending hours answering electronic correspondence, much of which is junk mail from senders they don’t know, according to Christina Haas of Kent State University’s Center for Workplace Literacy, an organization that conducts field-based research on how information is communicated in the workplace.

Etiquette experts say users can become part of the solution by exercising courtesy and common sense. They offer the following tips for communicating in the electronic age.

Cell phones/pagers

Turn off cell phones and pagers while in conference rooms, theaters, concert halls, restaurants, churches and other places, and let voice mail pick up your calls, advises North Canton image consultant Bonnie Motts.

Dick Blake, a Beachwood-based deportment/etiquette coach who has led classes for Akron City Club staffers, concurs. He says the cell phone so many brandish as a status symbol is actually considered an unwanted interruption by truly important people. Using it in group situations is just plain rude.

“Telephone conversations,” he stresses, “are supposed to be personal and very private.”

If you’re on a call or expecting an important call that simply can’t be returned at a later time, put the phone or pager on vibrate mode (some phones are also equipped with a light that indicates an incoming call) and discreetly alert your host, dining companions, meeting leader, seminar presenter, etc. to the situation, Motts says. When the call or page comes, excuse yourself and answer it in a more private area, perhaps in the corner of a lobby or hallway.

If you’re attending a meeting or seminar, sit at the back of the room by the door, if possible, and slip out of the room when necessary.

When it comes to making and taking calls in the car, Motts suggests pulling over to the side of the road before you pick up the phone. She points out that some communities have passed laws prohibiting drivers from using hand-held cell phones in moving vehicles.

Blake says talking in a stopped car is not only safer, it’s less noisy and allows drivers to extend the common courtesy of giving their full attention to the person on the other end of the line.

Voice mail

When leaving a message, clearly state the date, time and purpose of your call, as well as your name, company’s name and phone number. Motts suggests jotting down the reason you’re calling before dialing if you become flustered or tend to ramble.

Some voice mail systems only allow callers a matter of seconds to state their business. Pay attention to your pauses. Blake says some systems will cut callers off when they stop speaking. And make sure you give message recipients plenty of time to respond before leaving another message. According to Blake, a call returned within 48 hours under normal circumstances has received prompt attention.

When recording a voice mail greeting, state your name and company’s name and ask callers to leave their name, phone number, date, time and purpose of their call. One executive we know updates his greeting each day he’s in the office. He includes the date the greeting is recorded, whether he’s in the office, and, if not, when he will return and whom to contact during an extended absence. The effort has greatly reduced multiple messages from frustrated callers.

Don’t incorporate music, jokes, etc., in your greeting, even if you work out of your home.

“There’s no place for that in a business,” Motts says.

Blake adds sales pitches to the list. All take outgoing messages over his 10 to 15 second limit.

People resent taking too much time,” Blake says. “They don’t like to hear long messages.”

He advocates setting the system so calls go into voice mail after two or three rings. After three or four rings, he says, people get annoyed.


Keep e-mail messages as short as possible, preferably no longer than one screen.

“If somebody has to scroll down to read the rest of your e-mail, they may miss it,” Haas says.

She also recommends adhering to rules of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, spelling, etc., and stating the purpose of the message in the subject line. Messages with a subject line are more likely to get a response, especially when the recipient doesn’t know the sender or the business that person represents.

Some users set up an “automatic signature” that inserts their name, title, phone and fax numbers at the end of every message. Resist the urge to include a long song lyric or quote. Haas calls them annoying.

Don’t send one e-mail after another if you fail to receive a response, and don’t acknowledge every e-mail by sending a got-your-message e-mail of your own.

“People e-mail people when they’re sitting across from them in the same room,” Blake says.

Haas says the misuses contribute to e-mail overload.

Haas points out that the e-mail message, although often deleted after receipt, is indeed a permanent record that can be saved, stored and redistributed like a memo or letter on paper.

“It can be sent to hundreds, even thousands of people almost instantaneously,” she says.

She adds that courts tend to support the idea that an institution owns the e-mails sent by its employees. Therefore, watch what you say and how you say it.

Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.