If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t type it in the comments.
In an increasingly digital world, we encounter countless moments each day that require a new etiquette rulebook. Whether it’s communication via email or the comments section (more on that below), there are plenty of opportunities to employ appropriate digital etiquette and, in the process, make the Internet a more pleasant place to learn and engage. While we haven’t written the book (yet), here’s a primer on the dos and don’ts of interacting in the digital space.
When composing an email, clarity is essential. In terms of tone, steer clear of sarcasm unless you know the recipient well. Certain tones don’t always accurately translate through email and can create confusion on the receiving end of the message. It’s also important to proofread your emails. Be clear and concise in your language, and avoid typos and grammatical mistakes. (There’s also an argument to be made for avoiding excessive use of exclamation points.)
The first messages exchanged in any email thread should be formatted like a letter, so don’t forget a subject line, a salutation, and a signature. This scaffolding is especially important when emailing with colleagues, business associates, and anyone you don’t know well. In those emails, err on the side of professionalism and also avoid slang and abbreviations. On the other hand, when emailing back and forth with family and friends, any and all points of email formatting etiquette are up for debate (and probably fell away a long time ago, which is just fine). Context is key.
On the subject of emailing, there’s one thing our moms always told us: Don’t write down anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to read. This is especially helpful in terms of digital correspondence, because private messages can become public in an instant. On that note: Be careful when using the “reply” and “reply all” features in an email thread. If you accidently reply to everyone, annoyance (at the very least) and disaster (at the very most) may ensue.
For further reading, we also have a few opinions on the subject of thank-you notes sent via email.
Internet Comment Etiquette
When leaving a comment, it's important to ask yourself: Is this clear? It it concise? Is it necessary? If the comment isn't all three of those things, you may want to rethink it. Also, if you're addressing someone directly, be sure to tag them appropriately so that they can see the comment and respond. And proofread. Always proofread.
The number one rule of Internet etiquette is an easy one: If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t type it in a comment. When wading into the comments section, be intentional about being respectful, and stay on topic. If there’s a misunderstanding in the comments, it’s probably best to leave it alone. If someone addresses you or responds negatively to a comment you’ve made, you most likely don’t need to say anything. Responding just adds fuel to a thread that probably needs to fizzle out anyway. In the immortal lyrics of Sir Paul McCartney: Let it be.
Also remember: Comments sections are public. Anyone can (and will) read what you’ve written, and those comments are reflections on you, the commenter. If you write something negative or unhelpful about someone, that person will probably read it. (So be respectful.)
Social Media Etiquette
It’s easy to over-share when it comes to engaging with social media. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram prompt us to create, share, and engage with content constantly. That’s why it’s important to be aware of your online activity. What are you sharing? Who are you sharing it with? Be sure to think through what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, because when you put something out there, whether it’s an opinion or a photo, it ricochets through the digital world and can have an impact in the wider world too. There are human beings on other side of social media accounts, so avoid negativity, ill-considered posts, and careless language. If you’re a citizen of the Internet, be a good one.
Also be careful with private information, double check security and privacy settings, and think about what you’re sharing, because when something goes online, it doesn’t ever really come off. Conduct yourself appropriately, and be mindful of both over-sharing and over-posting.
Texting etiquette continues to evolve, but there are some best practices that are constant. Number one on that list? Don’t be an absent texter. You should respond to texts as soon as possible. While it’s tempting to read a text and put your phone down, when you decide to respond later, it often leads to forgetting to respond entirely. Respond promptly or move the conversation to a different mode of communication.
When interacting with people face-to-face, refrain from texting someone else. This is especially important during mealtimes. Don’t multi-task your relationships. Being present where you are means telling the texter that you’re busy at the moment and will respond as soon as you can, i.e.: when you’re not in the middle of a face-to-face conversation.
In texting interactions, context is also important. Depending on the conversation, sometimes single-word answers or long-winded messages are inappropriate. Know with whom you’re texting, evaluate the situation, think about how the text will read on the other end of the line, and respond appropriately.
And, as always: When in public spaces and at events, be sure to set your phone to silent. Texting alerts may be fleeting, but the disruption they create lasts much longer than the initial ding.
WATCH: Here’s What You Should Know About Correspondence Etiquette
What are your digital etiquette-related pet peeves? What points of Internet etiquette do you always notice?