All too often good manners seem to dissolve in the glare of a smartphone screen or the clicking of a keyboard. To British journalist Victoria Turk, it felt as if every day she was dealing with bad manners online – someone sending her an excessively long e-mail, another excluding her from a group chat, or, worse, being “phubbed” (the online version of snubbed) by friends who kept looking at their phones. Fed up with the lack of social graces, Turk, who is features editor at Wired UK, went Emily Post-al and wrote a book called Kill Reply All: A Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, from Social Media to Work to Love. It’s full of helpful tips on the dos (keep your e-mails short) and the don’ts (never breadcrumb: sending occasional messages to a dating prospect in order to string them along). Turk tells The Globe and Mail that the problem with communicating online is we miss reading social cues such as facial expressions and body language. Still, there is one sure-proof way to ensure you make more friends than enemies. “Just don’t be a jerk,” she says.
Why did you write the book?
I had a fascination for the weird behaviours and customs that we have developed around digital tools. I’m a millennial so I grew up with the internet. It was an important part of my formative years, a mainstay of my career, my education and my personal life – but I became increasingly troubled by the fact that there seemed to be no consensus on how to behave.
What is one of your biggest pet peeves?
Long e-mails. Brevity is key. In the book I include a quote from [U.S. blogger and author] Merlin Mann, who had solid advice, “Assume that everyone you’re communicating with is smarter than you and cares more than you and is busier than you. I’ve learned that it’s perfectly fine – indeed preferable – to get straight to it. Far from being impolite, it shows a respect for your reader’s time.
At the back of your book, you have a glossary of terms, many of which I’ve never heard of. What does “blue-ticking” and ”cuffing season” mean?
A whole new language has developed around all these new technologies and it’s difficult to keep up. We are so focused on learning how to use the technology that good manners are too often an afterthought. Blue-ticking is when someone doesn’t immediately respond to your WhatsApp message, but you can see two little blue ticks indicating they’ve read it – thus proving that they’re heartlessly ignoring you. It’s also called “being left on read.” Cuffing season is the time of year, from around November to March, when online daters forgo playing the field to instead settle down and snuggle up with someone through the winter.
I gather being “left on read” is impolite?
Let’s just say it’s one way you can insult someone – whether you mean to or not. Online communication is so easily misinterpreted. We have all these new tools, but no rule book on how to use them. Emily Post never had to consider how best to slide into someone’s DMs [direct messaging, especially on Twitter] or deal with the exquisite agony of being left on read. I think a lot of people want to do the right thing, and behave the right way, but they don’t know how.
Social media, at its core, is made for showing off but is there a right and wrong way to do it?
Let’s just say the right way is be humble about what you post. The wrong way, well, there are many. I can go on and on. Don’t post things online you should only tell your therapist. Don’t post a zillion pictures of your perfect life on Instagram. Don’t use the check-in function on Facebook to let everyone know which exotic new locale you’re in. Don’t tweet about your own achievements. Don’t humblebrag “OMG I’m so clumsy, I just tripped on my way onstage to collect an award!” And please don’t post inspirational quotes and motivational messages. You may have the best intentions but they just make me want to punch my computer screen.
What is the best way to ensure the message you intend gets across in an e-mail?
Read things back after you’ve written them and try to put yourself in the position as the recipient of the message. If you’re a bit upset, or aggravated when you’re writing, just take a breather, wait 10 minutes and send it then.
Is there a message you hope people take away from Kill Reply All?
As technology moves on and customs change it can be hard to keep up, but the basic pillars of good manners remain the same. It means having empathy and patience. It means putting other people’s comfort first and your own interests second. It means treating other people the way you would like to be treated.
This interview was condensed and edited.