Etiquette in the Digital Space

The crispness isn’t the only thing special about the air in Vermont. I think it’s also infused with a heavy dose of politeness coming from two major hubs; The Emily Post Institute and Middlebury College. Located about an hour away from each other, these two places have changed the way I think about my daily interactions, especially in the digital space.

The Emily Post Institute is an etiquette powerhouse, carrying on the tradition of respect, consideration, and honesty, implemented by author Emily Post in the first half of the 20th century. Two of Post’s great-great-grandchildren, Lizzie and Dan, host a podcast called
Awesome Etiquette in which they answer etiquette questions from their listeners. They cover everything from the one exception to placing a fork on the right side of a place setting (an oyster fork), to the best ways to go about re-gifting during the holiday season.  

What I most look forward to in this podcast is when the Posts tailor respect, consideration, and honesty to modern etiquette dilemmas. How do you deal with unfriending a politically-charged uncle on Facebook? If a friend says they are too busy to hang out, but you see them with other people on Instagram, do you confront them about it? What is the proper wording on a wedding program asking guests to refrain from posting pictures of the event on social media? In answering these questions, the Posts guide their listeners and provide them with advice and sample language for how to interact in an ever-changing world, which includes new and often puzzling communication technologies.

About an hour from the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, VT sits Middlebury College. A few weeks ago, Middlebury’s Office of Digital Learning collaborated with the Digital Learning Commons at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California to have a discussion about distance collaboration. This two-hour conversation, spanning various types of technologies, time zones, and participants, looked to brainstorm the best practices for virtual meetings. During the breakout sessions, I attended a smaller group meeting that focused on empathy and building relationships. In the context of this conversation in particular, best practices focus on the human element of the meetings, rather than the technological element.

I snapped this photo during the Distance Collaboration breakout session. So many faces in so many places!

It is no secret that virtual meetings are conducted differently from in-person meetings. Imagine going to a meeting where one participant sits in the corner of the room, away from the rest of the group, and contributes to the conversation with a 3-second lapse. This occurrence would be rare in such a setting, but is all too familiar in a virtual meeting. A proposed way of combating this issue is to physically level the playing field between virtual and in-person participants. This can easily be achieved by placing a laptop on a stack of dictionaries, allowing a virtual participant to have an actual, more or less appropriately-sized, seat at the table. In meetings where participants are strictly virtual, time lag can be dealt with by establishing a system of hand raising to avoid overlapping conversations.

The more brainstorming we did around the topic of virtual meetings, the more I saw Emily Post’s pillars of etiquette emerge. Take introductions, for example. When meeting people in person, we don’t think twice about extending a hand, making eye contact, and saying our names. If a handshake is considered a sign of respect, how are we to establish respect with a virtual meeting partner? The stakes are raised when there is a mix of in-person and virtual participants. If virtual participants see handshakes occurring on the other side of the camera, they may feel left out. Finding a best practice for this type of interaction not only requires us to be considerate, respectful, and honest, but also hospitable.

I am a fan of incorporating hospitality as virtual-meeting-specific pillar of etiquette. If the space for participants in a meeting to feel comfortable expressing themselves does not exist, then what is the point of the meeting? Or as Emily Post writes, “Ideal conversation must be an exchange of thought, and not, as many of those who worry about their shortcomings believe, an eloquent exhibition of wit or oratory.”