This text on online etiquette is dedicated to those who have been waiting for me to reply to their e-mail for weeks, and to those who did not reply to my e-mails for weeks; to those on whose great blog posts I did not leave a comment (apologies to Aldo!!), to those whose Facebook posts I did not ‘like’, … to those… this list can continue forever.
All of this has made me wonder whether the Internet has changed our view on what is polite and what is not. In addition, in diplomacy – an area of professional interest for me – politeness (or the lack of it) can have serious consequences. It can be seen as a part of diplomatic signalling, leading to all sorts of unexpected developments.
History provides a few examples. Some authors argue that World War I was triggered by the misuse of telegraph communications. Polite and impolite, conciliatory and hawkish cables were passing each other between St Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and London, contributing to the confusion of the summer of 1914 and, ultimately, to the start of the war.
What is the history of politeness?
Before we discuss e-politeness though, let us reflect more on politeness in general. Politeness is much more than how we handle a knife and fork properly, or smile at neighbours in the elevator.
Politeness as a lubricator of social interaction has long attracted the interest of philosophers and thinkers. Aristotle’s extensive writings on moderation had politeness as an underlying theme. Cicero continued the discussion in Decorum, arguing that everyone should behave according to his or her place in society (age, rank, and sex). Nowadays, Cicero would be uneasy, seeing old people wearing ear rings and dancing in discos.
Politeness is mainly an urban phenomenon. It resurfaced in the renaissance Italian cities, and later on in London cafés after the Glorious Revolution of 1699.
In renaissance Italy, manuals on proper behaviour were very popular. Best-sellers of the time were Galateo by Giovanni Della Casa and Courtier by Baldassare Castiglioni. While many of the rules of etiquette in Galateo have survived until today, the rule about not checking mail in the company of others would be difficult to implement now. To be ‘cool’ in renaissance Italy was to show sprezzatura, as described in Courtier. Manuals of etiquette were inspired by the premise of not offending others, and ensuring peaceful relations in communities.
After renaissance Italy, the next important development in the history of politeness was during the British Glorious Revolution. The culture of politeness flourished in London’s coffee houses. Politeness was a way to achieve ‘social mobility’. Proper behaviour was a way to gain entrance to a higher stratum of society. During that period, the first philosophy of politeness was written by Ashley-Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, in 1711 (Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times). He put conversation at the centre of politeness. Since the core of the conversation is equality, he argued that politeness requires that people be treated on equal terms. For him, politeness was natural, since human beings are good, and empathetic. Only by understanding other people’s feelings can we respond to them politely.
What are 4 rules of online etiquette?
In order to be scientific in my evaluation of my e-(im)politeness, I analysed my e-mail inbox. I identified a set of messages that had been waiting for my reply for more than two weeks. The main reason was procrastination, a trait that is as old as humanity. But procrastination got a new twist in the Internet era. Unlike in the past, when procrastination could be softened through social games and rituals (small talk), in the Internet era procrastination can easily lead to impoliteness. You either answer an e-mail or you don’t. You act either politely or impolitely. I identified four main reasons for procrastination that led to my e-impoliteness:
1. Postponing difficult or complex decisions.
This is a well known procrastination mechanism, but in the Internet era it has taken a new form. Before the Internet, there were administrative mechanisms that forced us to address difficult issues (ultimately, the law is the social system that proposes procedures and tools for dealing with conflict and difficult situations).
The Internet breaks barriers and gives us the freedom to organise our time. But, technology also leaves us to our own self-discipline, which is individual and – often – missing. Routines, rituals, and procedures (including protocol) are usually associated with past unnecessary complications in our highly functional world. But, we may witness their renaissance in our attempt to deal with our priorities and re-establish a balance between the enormous possibilities of the e-world and our existing natural limitations – including 24-hour days.
2. ‘Lost in translation’ – Not understanding social and/or policy context.
A lack of understanding of the context in which someone will read our message is one of the major problems in e-communication. In the past, when we spoke to each other or, even wrote letters, we had more time; we used signals to understand the other side. An Internet communication, including e-mail, often does not give us the necessary context, starting from trivial issues, such as the weather ‘on the other side’ (a rainy spring in Geneva affecting the mood of all of its inhabitants), up to more complex issues containing social and cultural contexts. An e-mail can marshal facts, but very often the same facts do not employ the same perception. When I get ‘lost in translation’ types of messages, I usually delay discussion for a face-to-face meeting, or at least a voice talk.
3. Time to draft high-quality responses.
If someone takes the time and energy to write an e-mail that goes beyond e-small talk, it obliges me to reciprocate properly. A one-line reply won’t work in such cases. High quality messages are often put aside for proper reflection, when I have more time. This time rarely comes, and the message continues to haunt my subconscious. Increasingly, I hint to my friends not to write me ‘serious messages’. Some of them turned to Twitter as a lighter form of communication, but – paradoxically – tweets can be very thoughtful; as the old adage goes ‘I did not have enough time to write a short letter’.
4. Communication ‘ping-pong’.
The speed with which another answers my messages often affects the dynamic of my replies. If someone replies to my message after a few weeks, I tend to reply with a delay, instead of my usually prompt response. This intuitive insight seems to be backed by very solid research in communication theory, which shows that in communicating, we often negotiate. For example, in dialogues, we tend to fine-tune our voices to the pitch and volume of the voice of our interlocutor. If our interlocutor speaks loudly, we tend to get louder, and vice versa. Try it next time in your conversation! E-communication is a form of negotiation as well. Delayed replies to our messages make us delay our replies in turn.
Have I been impolite?
Yes. But (whoever invented the word ‘but’ should be praised), my impoliteness can be explained and – inshallah – justified. The above-mentioned reasons for impoliteness are related to the transition between the two eras. Can we use the criteria of the pre-Internet era to judge behaviour in a completely different current environment? In the past, not replying to a letter, or not answering a phone call was impolite. But we used to receive only a few letters or postcards a month. We had time.
Today, except for the title, ‘e-mail’ is not mail in the sense letters or postcards are. E-mail is some sort of mix of small talk and talking to ourselves by talking to anyone (or everyone, by sending e-mails to more than 10 recipients). I refer to e-mail in this text, since it is the most conservative of the Internet’s communication tools. New types of politeness and etiquette are emerging on Instagram, TikTok, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook.
FAQs on online etiquette and e-politeness
They can often be interchanged. There are however some patterns emerging in their usage. Cyber diplomacy is used more to refer to diplomatic activities related to cyber security issues. There is more confusion about digital diplomacy being used to implement digital foreign policy (new topics in diplomatic agenda) and the use of new tools in diplomatic practice like social media, websites and online meeting platforms.
It is possible to avoid confusion in the current, transitory phase of terminology settling.
– The evolving geopolitical ENVIRONMENT for diplomacy: impact of digital technology on sovereignty distribution of power, and global interdependence among other issues.
– The emergence of new TOPICS in diplomatic agenda: cybersecurity. internet governance, e-commerce, online human rights, and more than 50 other policy topics.
– Use of new TOOLS in diplomatic practice: social media, AI, big data, online meetings, virtual and augmented reality.
You can read more on terminological confusion and other aspects of digital diplomacy.
The Vienna convention (1961) on diplomatic relations does not specify how countries will be represented. They are typically represented in another country by an embassy or other types of diplomatic missions. However, there are many other options available such as rowing (nonresident Ambassadors). Online diplomatic representation can be considered legal. It is yet to be seen if this practice will increase in popularity over the next few years.
3 writings of diplomacy illustrate different ways in which diplomacy is perceived today:
diplomacy – written in lower-case letters – reflects our daily experience. At home, at work, and on the street, we deal with conflicts through negotiations, engagement, and ultimately, compromise. In addition, we represent our family, our communities, and our companies. We often speak on behalf of others. This is what diplomacy is about. Most people would not use the term ‘diplomacy’ to describe these activities. Yet, these activities are at the core of diplomacy.
Diplomacy – with a capital ‘D’ – is a profession and a system of representation for states. This is how diplomacy is seen in the news. It is about negotiations and international treaties, among other elements. Traditionally, Diplomacy is performed by diplomats and international officials working in embassies, ministries of foreign affairs, and international organisations. A lot has been written about Diplomacy; and you can read more about it on Diplo’s website.
DIPLOMACY – fully written in upper-case letters – is how diplomacy is often perceived by the general public. This is the diplomacy of flags, receptions, black limousines, and protocol. DIPLOMACY looks glamorous and aristocratic. This perception can be traced back to the history of diplomacy, when it was a profession reserved for aristocrats.
- changing digital geopolitical and geoconomic ENVIRONMENT for diplomatic activities (sovereignty, power redistribution, interdependence)
- emerging digital TOPICS on diplomatic agenda (e.g. cybersecurity, e-commerce, privacy protection, and
- new TOOLS for diplomatic activites (e.g. social media, big data, AI).
In its broadest sense, diplomacy is the conduct of international relations by peaceful means.
More restrictive is this definition: diplomacy is the peaceful conduct of international relations by official agents of states, international organisations, and other international actors.
Even more restrictive is the definition of diplomacy as the conduct of relations between sovereign states by members of their respective foreign services. There are also a wide range of definitions based on functions of diplomacy:
Representation is one of the most important functions of diplomacy. Costas Constantinou blends the concepts of representation and communication in his definition:
“At its basic level, diplomacy is a regulated process of communication between at least two subjects, conducted by their representative agents over a particular object.”
The next set of definitions is focused on communication and the sharing of information. In The International Law of Diplomacy, B.S. Murthy defines diplomacy as,
“the process of transnational communication among the elites in the world arena.” Brian White defines diplomacy, both as “a communication process between international actors that seek through negotiation and dialogue to resolve conflicts” and as “one instrument that international actors use to implement their foreign policy”.
Tran Van Dinh’s most concise explanation of the importance communication has for diplomacy is:
“Communication is to diplomacy as blood is to the human body. Whenever communication ceases, the body of international politics, the process of diplomacy, is dead, and the result is violent conflict or atrophy.” Constantiou describes diplomacy as “a regulated process of communication” (Constantinou) and James Alan as “the communication system of the international society”.
The third approach focuses on the definition of diplomacy as negotiation. Quincy Wright defines diplomacy as:
“the art of negotiation, in order to achieve the maximum of group objectives with a minimum of costs, within a system of politics in which war is a possibility.”
Hendely Bull defines diplomacy as
“the management of international relations by negotiations.”
Join wide range of courses on diplomacy
Unfortunately, online politeness is declining. Language is divisive and offensive.
It’s possible to regain your e-politeness with careful language usage. Sarcasm should be avoided as it can easily lead to offence.
E-politeness is about online behaviour that reflects respect and courtesy, just as it should be in real life.
Science and technology are both considered the foundations of modern society. These terms are often used in modern parlance. The fundamental difference between science and technology is that it can be viewed as “disinterested knowledge and research” but not necessarily aimed at solving a practical problems. Technology is commonly referred to in this way as “applied science”.
But, it’s difficult to discern such clear distinctions in practice. Technology and science are often interconnected. It is not easy to tell the difference between scientific discoveries in mathematics, and the development of computers. Science and technology have been complementing one another. This distinction has become more blurred in the last ten years.
In the complex interplay of multiple issues and actors in diplomacy, the key challenge is to place certain issues on global diplomatic agendas. Similarly to the media in general and the world of the Internet, a fight for attention takes place, in this case diplomatic attention. Kehone and Nye suggest that states “struggle to get issues raised in international organisations that will maximise their advantage by broadening or narrowing the agenda.”
Currently, there are many unresolved issues related to Internet governance. As a result, extensive manoeuvring by different actors trying to place their own issues on emerging Internet diplomatic agendas is taking place.
More questions about online etiquette….
With its short history, e-politeness still needs more solid reflections. What are the best ways to develop digital empathy? How can we deal with tensions and conflicts online by being more e-polite? What is the new etiquette in Zoom meetings and hybrid conferences? What are online etiquette rules?
The list of questions continues…
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