An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Social Distortion

Why technology etiquette is now more important than ever

What’s your technology pet peeve?

People who incessantly chat on their cell phones in the grocery store bother Lori Ryan, a mother of three children who enjoys the rare quiet moment alone. “They don’t pay attention to people around them, and it drives me crazy having to shop around them while they have a conversation I don’t want to hear,” she says.

Families who bring noisy electronics to entertain their children at restaurants irk Tara Mattocks Field, who has two children of her own. “Talk to each other!” she says.

Grandparents who interrupt dinner to answer their cell phones annoy Greg Anderson, a parent trying to establish rules for using technology at home. “It irritates me in the extreme when the ones who taught us not to answer calls at the dinner table now do that very thing themselves.”

Lori, Tara and Greg aren’t technophobes. They love to call, text, Facebook and tweet just like everyone else. But every so often they get…aggravated. That’s natural, says Nathan Carlin, PhD, an assistant professor in the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

“Our etiquette and ethics just haven’t kept pace with our technology,” he says.

Because rules about how to use technology appropriately continue to evolve, HealthLEADER has enlisted the help of UTHealth experts, including Carlin, an ethicist; Kay Williamson, an authority on workplace issues; and Benjamin Amick, PhD, a public health specialist studying work/life balance. Together they offer guidelines on how to use the latest technology—politely and without risking your job, family or reputation.

Follow the Golden Rule

It sounds simple, but thinking of others before using technology to communicate is the first, and most important, rule of technology etiquette. In particular, a little empathy goes a long way when using electronic devices in public, Carlin says. Having to listen to loud cell phone conversations and noisy electronics in public encroaches upon an individual’s sense of privacy and personal space—or what’s left of it.

“In some sense, I think there is no going back now—these devices are in public spaces for good,” Carlin says. “As far as talking on the phone in public or watching movies in public, one should do so in ways that are not disruptive to others, like talking loudly in the library or watching an R-rated movie on a plane next to a child,” he adds. “The Golden Rule comes to mind.”

The Golden Rule also applies to what we say when we text, post, tweet and send e-mails. Carlin says we should aim not to embarrass others.

“It is easier to feel like you can humiliate someone online,” he says, adding that social networking sites give people a wider audience to humiliate others with a cutting quip, embarrassing party pic or thinly veiled negative reference to a “friend.”

While bad behavior on social networking sites gets the bulk of publicity these days, e-mail still ranks high in rudeness potential. “With e-mail among adult professionals, I think the biggest problem is shaming, such as when a supervisor or colleague reprimands another colleague and cc’s other colleagues,” Carlin says, adding that people should confront each other one-on-one if they have a problem.

Wait a minute

Ever publish a post or send off an e-mail you wish you hadn’t? You are not alone. Traditional letter writing required the writer to write his or her thoughts on paper, put the paper in an envelope, find a stamp and mail it. Now, people can skip those time-consuming steps and immediately communicate their every thought and whim—no matter how incoherent or inflammatory. The results cause misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

“Never send or post anything when you are angry,” Carlin says. He believes people frequently assume a different type of personality when they communicate through e-mail, text or social media—a rude personality disastrous to relationships. “It is easier to say things that are mean, nasty or sarcastic, because it is easier to write these things than to look someone in the eye and say them.”

If you’re feeling hot under the collar, let the e-mail or post rest for a few minutes, or hours, before sending or posting. On a later read, you may reconsider sending it, or choose to phrase your words differently. Or, just don’t send it at all.

Many people spend from two to four hours a day answering e-mail, says Amick, a professor of behavioral sciences and epidemiology at The University of Texas School of Public Health. Keeping up with all those e-mails, texts or posts “creates anxiety,” he says “But people also enjoy the instant communication. It is very addictive.”

Stop before you share

You know what they say about opinions, right? Everyone has one. These days they all end up on Facebook or Twitter, where friends and relatives duke it out over politics and religion.

“People are really passionate about these issues, and it is easy to offend others,” Carlin says. “I think less is more when it comes to posting your opinions.”

The “less is more” approach to airing opinions online also applies to the workplace. Williamson advises employees to air their grievances offline, whenever possible.

“If you don’t want it to end up on the front page of the newspaper, don’t put it on e-mail or Twitter, because it will live on,” says Williamson, director of Human Resources at UTHealth. She adds that employers have the right to review e-mails, texts and social networking posts created by employees on company computers or Internet accounts. Think you know how to avoid scrutiny? Think again. The recent David Petraeus scandal demonstrated that even the leader of the CIA can’t keep secret e-mails a secret.

And posting or texting a racy joke or image? Always a bad idea. Best case scenario: the recipient giggles at what you sent. Worst case scenario: you may lose a friend, your significant other, your job (think former congressman Anthony Weiner) or get yourself in trouble with the law.

Pay attention

In a world full of smartphones, tablet computers and MP3 players, everyone is a multitasker. Shoppers chat on their phones while pushing grocery carts, office workers listen to music while walking down the hall and even (gasp) answer texts in the bathroom. Amick attributes the obsession with handheld devices to shifting societal expectations. “I think the norm is for everyone to be working and available 24/7, and to use these devices constantly—not only for work, but for social engagement,” he says.

But are people accomplishing more? Or are folks just distracted and driving others to distraction? Rob Ryan, who works in the tech industry, tries to find the humor in our new reality.

“Sometimes I enjoy playing ‘Bluetooth or crazy.’ Although I miss being able to tell who was crazy just by observing their behavior on the street,” he says, referring to people who appear to be talking to themselves, but who actually are wearing tiny wireless headsets and talking on the phone.

Equally irritating are people so tethered to their devices, they block out the rest of the world. In addition to being rude, such tunnel vision can become a safety issue—for example, when a person texts while driving, or talks or texts on a smartphone while walking across a busy intersection. Every day, five people are killed and more than 1,200 people are injured in crashes that were reported to involve a distracted driver.

The tech-obsessed person also is in danger of missing out on what’s happening right at that instant. Carlin says when people aren’t present in the moment; they miss solitude and all that comes with it, such as introspectiveness and spiritual awareness. They also miss connecting with the immediate outside world, and communion with people and animals, he adds.

“Many writers on happiness—both ancient and contemporary—point out the importance of both of these ways of finding and creating meaning and pleasure,” Carlin says.

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