A common theme in some of the e-mails I received recently involved a love/hate relationship with text messaging, IMs and other instantaneous messaging methods. Depending on their personal communication style or preferences, some people raved about the convenience, informality and immediacy of these forms of communication. Others ranted about feeling stalked when a friend or colleague instant messaged them on Facebook or popped up unexpectedly on their Yahoo IM.
About every month or so, I’ll tackle your toughest personal style and Evolving Etiquette™ related questions – with advice and input from industry insiders and experts.
The overall theme this time around is: How in touch is too in touch and how do you set and have others respect your communications boundaries?
Vexed by Text
Dear MintStyle: I know that 9-5 doesn’t really mean 9-5 anymore, but I’m getting really frustrated by clients who send me text messages at all hours of the day or night or worse, on weekends. Is there a polite way to tell them to stop? Do I have to answer them all? I like to keep a laid back style, but it’s hard to when being hammered at all hours of the day and night.
Signed, Vexed by Too Much Text
Dear Vexed: I think most of us can relate to the feeling that the boundaries between work time and off time have become blurred, or in many cases have disappeared entirely. Relationship advice expert, April Masini, suggests a pretty straightforward approach to dealing with texters without limits: “Make your boundaries clear upfront — and not after the fact, so that it looks like they’re personal.”
Another approach might be to inform others of specific times that you’ll be answering calls or texts. In this way, you won’t feel guilty ignoring a work call that comes in during your time off. Masini suggests an option that might include giving out your cell phone number to clients, but having a greeting that clearly announces the times during which calls are returned.
Dear MintStyle: I work with a small group and sometimes we feel more like friends than co-workers. That said, at other times I wonder if I’m being annoying by texting them or using the instant message function on Facebook to discuss work-related issues. How do I know when and how it’s appropriate to contact a co-worker or colleague?
Signed, Is Text Best?
Dear Is: With so many ways of being in touch, it can be hard to determine what’s appropriate and what’s completely out of line. I informally polled some Facebook friends to find out how they felt about the IM function. Some loved it, some loathed it. Rona Distenfeld, of R.D. Creative Direct in Austin, says that “The IM window is faster, and I’ve been able to have good, useful, real time conversations with people, which I’ve enjoyed.” Writer, Pamela Oldham, on the other hand finds IM to be “too intrusive and jarring” and more akin to “stalking” than anything else. She prefers “less intrusive” ways to reach her, which include e-mail, phone or text message.
So how do you know the most welcome way to contact someone? Ellen Lubin-Sherman, author of “The Essentials of Fabulous: Because Whatever Doesn’t Work Here Anymore,” recommends mixing and matching your virtual communications “so that you’re always using the mode of communication that’s most effective and relevant to what you’re trying to accomplish.” If you don’t feel confident enough to decide on your own- Just ask. Before peppering anyone with texts or inundating them with IMs, simply ask them their preferred method of communication.
If you’re still unsure, Kalin Kassabov, co-founder and CEO of ProTexting, offers a few tips:
-Is your message appropriate to send by text or IM? Hirings & firings or serious business discussions are best handled in face-to-face encounters.
-Work-related texts shouldn’t be sent after hours unless an urgent situation is developing. Sending texts to employees after hours may make your employees feel as though they are on an electronic leash.
-Is your message critical enough that you need a rapid response? If not, make it clear that a reply is not always needed.
Dear MintStyle: I’ve noticed a very annoying trend lately where people I barely know (and sometimes work with) sign their texts or e-mail with hugs, kisses, xxx’s, and other online shows of affection. I’m also confused by the proliferation of exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!! I try to maintain a professional style when dealing with co-workers. Am I crazy, or isn’t the cutesy stuff best left for friends and family?
Signed, Kissed Off
Dear Kissed: As communication style becomes more immediate and less formal, some people are prompted to try to forge even more intimate relationships with people they don’t really know. No, not that kind of intimate relationship, but one in which there’s a sense of closer connection. But unless you work with your spouse (and even then) X’s and O’s aren’t quite the way to do it.
While hugs and air kisses might be more common in certain industries, cutesy sign offs are best left for communications with friends, family and those with whom you actually share smooches. Vicky Oliver, author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions (Skyhorse, 2010), believes that X’s, O’s and exclamation points are meant to “show people that you intend a light tone of voice.”
Oliver cautions that “by constantly punctuating sentences with exclamation points they cease to have any meaning whatsoever. How are we supposed to communicate urgency or even that we’re passionate about something when every other sentence ends with a shout?”
Unless you’re a close friend, try to pay attention to your own usage of exclamation points, X’s, O’s and smiley faces.
Mind Your Ps and Qs
Whether you love or hate instant communication methods, what you say in an instant says a lot about you. When texting, talking or chatting pay attention to details, or as Lubin-Sherman advises, “Make sure the message is well-constructed with attention to spelling and grammar. Badly constructed text messages can undermine your authority and credibility.” And don’t be overly friendly unless talking to a friend. As Oliver puts it, “With a romantic partner, it’s acceptable to text in shorthand, but with a boss, I’d be careful.”
Good advice. So much so, that as tempting as it is, I’ll resist signing off with even a stray x or phantom o.
Rachel Weingarten is a style expert, marketing strategist & personal branding consultant for CEOs, politicians and celebrities and the creator of MintStyle. She is the award winning author of Career and Corporate Cool and Hello Gorgeous! Rachel frequently leads seminars on modern communications etiquette at major corporations and teaches personal branding at New York University on the graduate level. She is a regularly featured expert on TV shows including Good Morning America and The Today Show. Visit her online at www.racheletc.com or on Twitter @rachelcw.