Digital Manners: New Etiquette for Web-Speed Life

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Text Messaging Etiquette: To Text or Not to Text

Perhaps the wildest, most unpredictable area in the realm of high-tech etiquette, text messaging is fraught with pitfalls that can turn otherwise sensible people into rude and thoughtless jerks. Try these simple tips to ensure that you'll never annoy others or embarrass yourself with your cell phone.

Too many texts? There is no agreed-upon maximum number of text messages you can send to someone in a certain period without becoming an pest or a source of dread. How often you can safely text someone depends on how close you are with that person, the importance of the information you are conveying, and the timing of the texts. A good rule of thumb is to consider how many times you would be comfortable calling the same person in a day. Think of each text conversation as a phone call and ask yourself whether you are imposing on the other person.

Reconsider that texted marriage proposal. When it comes to texting, the medium truly is the message. It is almost never appropriate to conduct important conversations about relationships, major life events, or critical work issues via text message, where the conversation invariably comes off as flippant. Pick up the phone, or use e-mail to engage in a more thoughtful discussion. Never break up with someone via text. Ever.

The "other people" factor. It is not necessarily rude to text while you're in the presence of others--if the point of the text message is to involve the recipient in the physical gathering. On the other hand, communicating extensively via text when you should be fully engaged in what's going on in the real world will surely annoy those around you. Again the comparison of a texting session to a phone call is apt and should give you a sense of how to behave.

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Keep it simple. The hassles and the cost involved in texting justify considerable informality. Extended hellos, farewells, and unnecessary back-and-forth messages can be aggravating and counterproductive. So get to the point quickly, and confine protracted conversations to e-mail. Common abbreviations (LOL, LTR) are okay, but radical shorthand that careens toward unreadability ("I M TTLY BRD RT NW") should be avoided if you're over the age of 17.

A reply is not always needed. It is acceptable to respond to a text message with a phone call, an e-mail message, or any other form of communication. The recipient is free to choose the medium of the response, or even whether to respond at all. Similarly, there is no strict rule governing how promptly a person should respond to a text or instant message. The recipient may reply at any convenient time, though in general text messaging and IM are most appropriate for subjects of some urgency.

Never be "that guy" (or girl). Don't try to text-message during a public performance (movie, theatre, or the like). The light emanating from your cell phone is a rude distraction to those around you. In public situations and even in private gatherings, excuse yourself and slip away to a secluded location before engaging in text messaging.

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