Don’t Thank Me?


Ryan Johnson/The Arbiter

Satire can be so subtle. That’s what I thought at first when I read Nick Bilton’s column on digital etiquette in The New York Times. When Mr. Bilton wrote, “Some people are so rude. Really, who sends an e-mail or text message that just says ‘Thank you’? Who leaves a voice mail message when you don’t answer, rather than texting you? Who asks for a fact easily found on Google? Don’t these people realize that they’re wasting your time?” I waited for my laugh cue. Surely the “you” whose time was being “wasted” by thank-yous and voice mails was being held up for mockery. Right? Here I am, Mr. Bilton. Ready to get the joke.

But the laugh moment never arrived. Not even when Bilton went on about the difficulty of accessing voice mail. Not even when he wrote—in what I was sure was a send-up of some tech-snotty persona—

My father learned this lesson last year after leaving me a dozen voice-mail messages, none of which I listened to. Exasperated, he called my sister to complain that I never returned his calls. “Why are you leaving him voice mails?” my sister asked. “No one listens to voice mail anymore. Just text him.”

My mother realized this long ago. Now we communicate mostly through Twitter.

Alas. Bilton’s argument is totally sincere. He believes that salutations and sign-offs, even of the abbreviated sort that we employ in e-mail, are a waste of the recipient’s valuable time. That asking an author where one can buy her book is offensive because that information is available on the Internet. That with Google Maps available everywhere (everywhere! Because we all hold smartphones in our hands with perfect reception everywhere!), those who request directions to a host’s house are insulting him. And worst, when said host responds with these ridiculous directions that you oughtn’t have needed, replying with an e-mailed or texted “thank you” rudely wastes the host’s time.

If this is self-mockery, it is of the most unconscious sort. Bilton trots out Emily Post’s great-great grandson to bolster his case, but he doesn’t seem to understand that when Post’s descendant notes how Bilton’s impatience “gives the impression that digital natives can’t be bothered to nurture relationships,” he is being warned not to flaunt his ire over actions that many consider not merely inoffensive but thoughtful.

You have to feel sorry for the guy, who in the end received 500 comments universally condemning him for failing to respond to his dad’s messages. But what disturbs me most about this doomed foray into teaching the rest of us our digital manners is that Bilton frames his argument as a lesson from the young to the old. Indeed, my 20-something sons prefer texting to e-mail and don’t leave voice mails when they call. But my brother and I weren’t the height of politeness when we were in our 20s, either. No, if Bilton’s message is from any one group to any other group, it is from the haves to the have-nots. It never occurs to our fortunate fellow that not everyone can afford a smartphone or a limitless texting plan. Nor that not everyone has access, at all times of day and in all circumstances, to Internet information.

Digital etiquette is changing the way we communicate with each other. Writing “Dear X” on an e-mail can sound either too formal or too intimate, now that “Hi X” has become the norm. E-mails are starting to take their cue from text messages, sometimes dispensing with salutations altogether, which some find abrupt and others don’t. Some respondents obviously believe that “Reply all” is a more appropriate way, say, to congratulate one member of a group than an individual “Reply” to that person, whereas others find the cacophony of kudos self-referential and offensive. We have much to learn from each other. But if you don’t want voice mail, turn off your automatic answering feature (if you’re so tech-savvy, that should be easy). If you can’t stand to divulge directions, don’t be surprised if I have trouble finding your house. And if you resent being thanked … well, that’s an issue for your therapist. Emily Post can’t help you there.

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