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Erica Dhawan on Establishing Digital Communication Etiquette

Erica Dhawan on Establishing Digital Communication Etiquette

When our phone rings, we’re under no obligation to answer it. There’s an understanding that a caller can leave a voicemail and expect to hear back from you when you’re free. So, why then do we behave differently when it comes to digital communication channels?

In a recent opinion piece with the New York Times, digital communications expert Erica Dhawan explored digital communications etiquette, and why it’s time to set digital boundaries and learn how to respect those boundaries as both senders and receivers.

Boundaries Prevent Cognitive Overload

In today’s world, we are always “online”, flooded with texts, emails, Slack messages, Zoom requests, etc. Those constant chimes, dings, and vibrations can be extremely demanding, yet many of us feel it’s rude to ignore them. But should we? Erica asks.

Ghosting has become a “deadly sin of digital communications,” Erica writes, and, we can all agree, that suddenly cutting someone off, never to be heard from again, is rude. But, perhaps we should let go of the “outdated, demanding requirement,” she writes, of participating in “ceaseless back-and-forth conversations.”

Stopping a digital conversation isn’t always ghosting, especially in these difficult times. Sometimes ignoring a message is a form of self-care.

Erica spoke with Cal Newport, author of A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, who says a better term to apply to digital communications is “triage”. With the onslaught of daily digital messages, we are forced to triage them into three categories:

  1. Those that require an immediate response.
  2. Those that require thinking and more time before responding.
  3. Those that don’t need our attention.

If we don’t triage, it can lead to “cognitive overload”, Erica writes, which researchers say “may result in ineffective information processing, confusion, loss of control, psychological stress, or even an increase of depressive symptoms.”

When you’re on the receiving end of this triage, Erica says, and you aren’t hearing back from someone, it can be frustrating. But, she continues, acknowledging this overwhelm, which we have all experienced at some point, turns digital communication back into a human experience. It’s easier to forget or ignore that when you aren’t communicating with someone face to face or hearing their voice.

“…it forces me to confront my own main-character syndrome — the idea that we all play a starring role in the movie that is our life, with everyone else merely the supporting cast,” Erica writes. “It makes me acknowledge that the ‘ghosts’ are, like me, full, complicated people with off-screen demands that might often pull them away from digital conversations. It might also force me to do my own triage — do I really need this question answered, or can I make the decision myself and move on?”

Setting Digital Boundaries

The reality is, we don’t need access to everyone at all hours of the day and we have to stop assuming we can assert this kind of behaviour over other people. Especially, Erica says, when we’re in an era that understands the important of taking time away from the screen.

“…triaging can be necessary for our peace of mind and relationships with the people in our lives: When we’re on vacation. When it’s after 7 p.m. When we’re at the dinner table. When we’re meditating or exercising. If you don’t reply immediately to a message during one of those times, don’t apologize. Just reply when you can. Or don’t,” Erica said.

This builds off advice Erica received from Daniel Post Senning of the Emily Post Institute — an organization that offers advice and training on good manners. Daniel said: “You have to be a civil and decent person, but you don’t have to give your time and attention to everyone who asks for it.”

Don’t use this as an excuse to ignore people, Erica said. Instead use this as a reason to establish boundaries with the people in your life so they understand why they may not hear from you. Prevent the panic! Be upfront with them, she said, suggesting that you:

  • Communicate with co-workers the issues or questions that require your input.
  • Set an email responder or Slack status that makes it clear you’ll be slow to respond at times.
  • Block time out of your schedule that says you are busy and will not respond to messages.
  • Only let a few people know how to contact you if there is an emergency during off-hours.

As a sender, Erica added, if something really requires a response, don’t hesitate to send a follow-up email so people can move up your request within their triage.

As our world becomes more digital, establishing digital communication etiquette is crucial to maintaining work-life balance, and preventing burnout and overwhelm from too many demands on our attention.

Erica Dhawan is an expert on digital teamwork, collaboration, and innovation. She helps teams and organization build trust and connection in an ear of digital-first workplaces.

Interested in learning more about Erica and what she can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].