Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

The Etiquette of Modern Communication

The other day I found myself needing to contact a friend. This friend and I, we’re both bleeding edge technology nerds, so it got me thinking about how many ways there are for people like us to contact each other, and what the unspoken rules of etiquette are for each one.

Here were the options, in order of most immediate to least.


These days, I answer the phone with, “Is everything okay?” The phone is so pressing, so overt, so immediate, the only socially appropriate reason to use it is if you’re trapped in a fiery building or someone’s in the hospital. The phone insists itself upon the user, annoying everyone within earshot, and has to be answered immediately to make the noise stop. A hateful experience for everyone involved.

Instant Messaging

It used to be safe to assume that IM was limited to the comfy confines of computers, but more and more cellphones have IM capabilities, so now you never know. Instant messaging is only slightly less intrusive than a phone call, but it’s still expected that your respond in under a minute if you’re there.

SMS / Text Message

The other day I sent a text message to my dad’s RAZR, and I’m pretty sure he thought I was magic. He never did respond.

Lately, SMS is my preferred method of communication for, as its acronym implies, short messages. The technical limitations of SMS require brevity, so you never have to deal with those long, meandering voice messages. It makes the recipient’s phone ring and/or vibrate, but usually less so than a phone call so it’s less interruptive. And the message is immediate, so it doesn’t require the recipient to do anything to get it (like call in to a voicemail service).

Plus it’s basically okay to ignore it if you’re busy. Unlike a phone call, it won’t keep bugging the recipient to answer.

Voice Mail

So annoying. As the recipient, I have to call the phone company to get it, and that’s never fun. And I have to remember which numbers do which commands. And even after all that, it’s still not really expected that I respond in a timely manner, because unlike IM and Email which report an error to the sender, voice mail fails quietly, so the sender never knows when, or if, the message was received.


Ah, email, my old friend. Remember when were were buds? Yeah, I miss those days, too.

Email is now dead to me. Of all the communication methods listed here, it’s the most passive. You can leave a message whenever, and I can get it whenever, and I don’t really have to reply in a timely manner.

But the spammers have ruined it for everyone. I have my email clamped down with a Spam Arrest whitelist and a Bayesian junk filter and spam still plagues my inbox. I still use email, and it’s still my preferred method of communication for messages that are not immediate, but you almost always have to follow up any email with a message in another medium if it’s important.

I still love you, Email. But it’s just not working out. It’s not you, it’s me. (Actually, it is you, you big slut.)

So those were my options. What did I choose? Didn’t matter. By the time I’d considered all my options, he contacted me. Viva technology!

How do you communicate? Discuss this post at Vox.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Instagram. I’m mostly harmless. More.

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