Thursday, March 14, 2013

Business etiquette from a New York Times grumpster

The New York Times knows a thing or two about style, etiquette and manners. As one of the world’s most prestigious news sources, it has its fair share of pedantic readers itching to spot an error in style or tone. Its letters pages are always full of such immaculate fussiness, and it even calls itself the world's most authoritative newspaper.

So it’s interesting to see that Nick Bilton, who writes about technology for the paper, recently posted a tirade about the etiquette of electronic communications. As someone who must receive a lot of calls and emails, Bilton has plenty of beef with the way we interact with one another on these platforms.

His biggest gripe is people leaving him voicemail messages. “Think of how long it takes to access your voice mail and listen to one of those long-winded messages,” he says. But this is undoubtedly trumped by Bilton’s hatred of people who email him to say they’ve left him a voicemail message. That’s two pieces of his life he’ll never get back.

OK, Nick, we get the picture. If I ever need to contact you, I’ll make sure I do so via your preferred media – text message and Twitter – or maybe I’ll just hurl some abuse out of a car window if you’d prefer. But Bilton states it’s not just co-workers and freelancers wasting his time he doesn’t like. He pulls no punches in attacking his family for not being considerate enough of his time. “My father learned this lesson last year after leaving me a dozen voice mail messages, none of which I listened to,” he says. Charming.

What you begin to notice with Bilton is not only that he’s irrational texts aren't always quicker but he also shows a lack of caring himself. For example, his own dislike for voicemail seems to be more important than his love for his father. And he boasts of cutting his mother down to size by convincing her to communicate with him on Twitter – the next best thing to interrupting her and saying, “Could you please get on with it?”

Bilton isn't totally wrong on all counts. It's true that the devices we thought would save us time could well be wasting it. People ought to be more considerate, especially when they're in the same room, not emailing you with something unnecessary. But Bilton chastises people who respond to say “thank you” in an email, for instance, when twenty years ago it would have been rude not to. He complains that it takes him longer to read than it did to compose, but we're talking literally seconds, or even nano-seconds 'wasted' with courtesy.

What was intended as a plea for people to be more considerate has become an example of how technology has actually made us – or some New York staffers at least – a lot less tolerant. And rude, which is one of the things Bilton was rallying against.

All of this means you have to tailor your responses and your means of communication. If it’s an intolerant swine like Nick Bilton, don’t bother thanking him for that no-doubt curt email he sent you. If it’s your mum, call to say thanks. And if she’s not in, leave a voicemail.