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Online communication etiquette: Are you leaving the impression you intend?

May 03, 2016 by Nancy Salzman


This is probably a very acceptable way to make a date with a friend, but is it an appropriate model for all online communication purposes? The answer: Not if you expect to be identified as a professional.

It used to be that a first impression was made when you walked into a room. Now, a real person is developing a first impression of you when they open the email you sent, read your blog post, view your LinkedIn profile, and check out what you post on Facebook, …well, hopefully you get the picture! Consider your communication style online similar to walking into a room of strangers. How do you want to be known? What impression do you want to leave? What do you want them to be saying behind your back when they talk about you?

In 1971, Albert Mehrabian published the book “Silent Messages,” detailing his research on non-verbal communication. His research became the basis for the adage that communication is fifty-five percent body language, thirty-eight percent tone of voice and seven percent the actual words. Over the years, this research has become the basis for the belief that voice coaches are more valuable in teaching successful communication than a speechwriter attempting to provide communication coaching. Spin that forward and apply it to online communications where we have not yet figured out how to include body language and often do not include voice. We’re missing a lot of meaning and have room for an abundance of assumptions when all we’re working with is the seven percent.

If you are reading this post, you are most likely a member of the digital world. Would you be considered an informed or uninformed digital citizen vis-à-vis how you participate in our online society? Rate yourself with the questions below as you reach out to friends, colleagues, and others in the virtual environment.

Four simple questions to assess your online etiquette 

1. Do you know your audience?

Making a date with a friend? The communication may include abbreviations you both know. Writing a thank you note following a job interview? If you expect to be considered professional, your communication must be professional. This is not the place for LOL, BTW, LTNS, etc and certainly not the place to be yelling online by using all capital letters to make a point. Stand in the shoes of the recipient and determine whether you’ll meet your objective as they read your words.

2. Can your words be interpreted in more than one way?

Read, re-read and maybe even re-read again your communication before hitting send or submit. Is there more than one way to interpret the words and/or images in your communication? If so, is that ok? Your tone of voice and body language won’t be accompanying the words so do not assume that the recipient will read the communication with the same voice you’re hearing in your head.

3. Do you know how to properly use the communication tool?

In one instance, an individual had the best of intentions as she tried to acknowledge her niece’s Facebook post stating that she was surprised by her boyfriend’s decision that they should break up. She clicked on “Like” resulting in additional tears when her niece saw this and lots of confusion when others who knew the back story on the relationship saw this. Aside from understanding the components of the tool, understand what the tool is used for. Would you post what you made for breakfast on LinkedIn where employers may be looking for who they might want to recruit? This information may be better left to Facebook or Twitter where your circle of friends might be interested in that new recipe you made this morning.

4. Is an online communication even appropriate or should you get up from your desk and have a face-to-face discussion?

Have you been going back and forth, via email, on an issue that is becoming heated? Are you wondering whether the recipient of your emails understands your communications? Are you asking for something that might be controversial, create unease, result in anger, etc? Being able to read body language, hear the tone of voice, and engage in a face-to-face conversation rather than a long email string will most likely be more efficient. Don’t leave your emotional intelligence at the curb! Take a moment to consider how you would like to receive the news, question, etc that you need to convey.

Impressions Matter

Online communication allows us to streamline and work effectively. It is the norm today with no end in sight as to the new ways that will be created for us to communicate online. Just try to keep in mind that you are communicating with another human being with his/her own set of emotions, bias, and assumptions. Are you leaving an impression of yourself every time you click on send or submit. What impression do you want to make when you walk through the online door?



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