Today’s business etiquette is a social paradox

We have reached a turning point in business, based on the ease of communication and connection. It’s a paradoxical shift, and the old norms are falling away. The key takeaway is that we all have the right to say no.
For example, it’s never been more easy to send messages to people — there’s not just snail mail and phone numbers, there’s email, Twitter, Facebook, and who knows how many inside-the-business communication paths. And meetings still consume a large chunk of people’s work time, even though we know they are time sinks.
Let’s start with what is becoming the new etiquette about meetings.
Meetings: More Meat, Less Filling
I remember only about five years ago, I was having a conversation with a business woman about instant messaging, and suggested a use case that I thought would clearly demonstrate its value. ‘Imagine’, I said, ‘you are in a meeting with a client and your assistant wants to inform you about something important, but doesn’t want to interrupt the meeting. If you have instant messaging running on your laptop, you could simply scan the message without interruption’.
She replied, ‘I never bring a laptop into client meetings’. Thud.
How things have changed. Today, the norm is that most people in business bring laptops, tablets, phablets, and/or smartphones to meetings. In principle, we do this to review documents, access or update to-do lists, or to take notes. In many situations, people also multitask, checking Twitter, email, or other information streams, and increasingly, business social networks, or work media, as I call them.
There is a great deal of hand wringing of the Sunday newspaper variety, of whether we are cheapening our relationships by not paying ‘enough’ attention to the people we are meeting with by flipping through Twitter, or whether we should bring any devices to meetings at all. Let me cut through this discourse with a few observations.
Companies still haven’t wised up to using social media or work media internally to decrease time spent in informational meetings: the ones where people are giving status updates, and most attendees are bored out of their minds. Simply don’t have those meetings anymore. Get people to post their status information in work media or social media tools, and if and when you need to know the status, go look. Or if someone’s status information is critical to your work, follow them closely.
As a result, the new etiquette should be — and increasingly is — that anyone should be able to say no when asked to attend a meeting, and not have to justify it, either.
The meetings that are left would be meaty: people working together. Colaboring on marketing literature, reviewing code, developing a product strategy, or rethinking sales objectives. These aren’t ‘meetings’ as we historically consider them. They are not an interruption in our work, they are a continuation of our work, the part of our work where we are working actively with others.
In these coworking situations, bringing and using computing devices obviously makes sense, since 99% of all the information needed is accessible there. And if for some reason people need to access Twitter or pull up an email as part of that working session, so be it. Or perhaps people want to take a bio/email break every 45 minutes: no big deal.
Also note that work is now highly distributed, so in many situations members of a working team may not be in the same room. Again, obviously you need to pull them in on Skype, and maybe use screen sharing or online whiteboard software to share information and ideas.
Outside Of Meetings: All Bets Are Off
Some companies rely very heavily on telephone calls, but it is an increasingly old school mechanism for communication. It is interruptive, unless people use a stringent phone screening approach. I know quite a lot of people who simply don’t answer phone calls except from a/ a close circle of contacts or b/ people with whom they have scheduled a call.
My phone message recommends that people send an email or text me instead of leaving voicemail. In fact my voice mail is converted to email, courtesy of Google Voice, but I would still rather if people sent email directly, since the Voice transcriptions can be flaky, and often I am forced to listening to audio to get a phone number, for example.
Basically, I believe that the new etiquette is that unsolicited phone calls are inherently rude, and so is voice mail. But this is perhaps one of the most polarized issues in business etiquette today.
Likewise, I think that people leaving unsolicited voice mail or sending unsolicited email should not expect a response. The fact that I have an email address or a phone number does not mean that anyone can target them and assign me work: absorbing the message and responding.
A much better approach is to have someone who knows me and you act as an intermediary, and introduce us, making the case as to why we should talk. And I think that is true within a company, as well.
And this etiquette extends to Twitter, chat, and work media tools, as well. People may think it’s impolite to ignore an @mention on Twitter, or the equivalent on a work media tool, but it’s not. It’s just sensible in a world of increasingly open and hyperconnected communications.
Nick Bilton commented on these new rules of etiquette, and the generational gaps involved. His dad got upset that Nick wasn’t answering his voice mails.

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.

Bilton quotes Bartunde Thurston, the writer and comedian, who sums up the situation this way:

“I have decreasing amounts of tolerance for unnecessary communication because it is a burden and a cost,” said Baratunde Thurston, co-founder of Cultivated Wit, a comedic creative company. “It’s almost too easy to not think before we express ourselves because expression is so cheap, yet it often costs the receiver more.”

 The Bottom Line
The paradox today is that an increase in connection leads to the need for greater autonomy, so today’s business etiquette is based on the foundation that everyone has the right to say no to anyone: to say no to dumb meetings, or to not respond to unsolicited communications.
Etiquette is intended to decrease the likelihood of causing offense, but the reality today is that no one should be offended if someone doesn’t respond to an email, Tweet, or text, or a request for yet another meeting. It’s the new normal.