When I first learned about the world of work, around 35 years ago, professional etiquette was part of the curriculum. For example, if you directed a letter to a specific person, such as ‘Dear Professor Malik’, you ended the body of the letter with ‘yours sincerely’. If you used a generic direction – in those days almost always ‘Dear Sir(s)’ – you ended with ‘yours faithfully’. You could use an underlined subject line after the direction to indicate the topic, as we do now with emails. If you needed to write to a bishop, or an equerry, or the Queen, you could look in Debrett’s for the proper way to address them. There was a rule for everything.
Our ways of communicating for work are developing so fast that etiquette can’t catch up. I’ve seen earnest discussions online about email etiquette: when to sign off with ‘best wishes’ and when to use ‘kind regards’; whether it’s ever acceptable to use ‘wbw’ (short for ‘with best wishes’) or, even more daringly, nothing at all. Opinions always vary. Nobody knows whether it’s OK to address an email to someone using their given name if you haven’t met them face-to-face. Similar questions of etiquette arise for WhatsApp groups (can you leave if it’s a work-based group?), Skype conversations (when is it OK to use the instant messaging feature?), and so on.
Then there’s the question of when it is, or isn’t, OK to make contact at all – which is rarely asked. Given that everyone seems to be suffering from inbox bloat, as well as having to juggle private messages on a range of social media platforms, I think this is an important conversation to have. One of the downsides of being perceived as a successful independent researcher is that I receive an increasing number of inappropriate initial contacts, often from students who want me to do their work for them. It’s reaching the point where I struggle to respond to them all – and I’m a compulsive communicator who types at over 90 wpm, so if I’m having trouble, I guess others may be even more so.
This problem is exacerbated by the sheer number of ways in which people can make contact with each other online. It seems every social media platform enables messaging. I get personal messages via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, Google Hangouts… maybe I also get them on Pinterest and Medium and Tumblr and other platforms I joined but rarely use. Then clients often want me to use specific platforms such as the loathsome SharePoint, or Slack, or b2drop, or they give me an email address at their organisation, and I’m supposed to check all of these several times a day in case a message has arrived. It’s a nightmare!
Facebook is a particular problem because I’m not signed up to Messenger. I was a bit suspicious of Facebook from the start. I gave it minimal information about me and I never used it to play games, or for apps, or to sign in to other websites. I don’t click on ads (though I know they’re the reason I can use the platform for free) and the reason I didn’t sign up to Messenger is because I had to give my phone number, which I wasn’t willing to do. As a result I don’t get the junk messages people complain about, or the historical reminders (which I would really hate), or any of the other FB-related hassle. But there are downsides too. One academic colleague was quite put out with me recently because I hadn’t replied to a private message she’d sent me on Facebook; of course she didn’t know I wouldn’t have seen it, because Messenger doesn’t give users that information. I know other academics who seem to prefer to communicate about work via direct messages on Twitter. I HATE THIS. Surely email is best for professional communication? It’s searchable, you can back it up… I lose messages on other platforms. I don’t mind them for a quick question or comment, but for anything involving actual arrangements, I need to use email because I make so many arrangements with so many different people that it’s really easy to lose track.
It seems we’ve reached a point where everyone prefers different modes of communication – and there are so many available that there is no longer a professional norm or standard. Perhaps it’s OK to contact anyone, at any time, through any medium, to ask for anything we want. In one way that’s a kind of freedom. But when you’re on the receiving end, it can feel like another kind of shackle. Is this really how we want our professional lives to be?