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4 online etiquette rules in for 2022

Published on 29 October 2021
Updated on 19 March 2024
Spam M

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.[1] 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.

vienna congress 0After 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.[2] 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

Cyber diplomacy and digital diplomacy can be interchangeable, with cyber diplomacy focusing more on security issues. Digital diplomacy involves implementing digital foreign policy and using tools like social media. Geopolitical changes impact diplomacy, with new topics like cybersecurity and tools such as social media being incorporated.

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. 

Governments must prepare for the evolving metaverse, focusing on data protection, cybersecurity, digital identity, and digital policy issues. Balancing physical, virtual, and augmented realities is crucial in readiness for the metaverse.
The future of the metaverse is still not clear. Facebook has the network, financial and technical capabilities to make this happen. The government should be ready to address data protection, cybersecurity, digital identity, and other digital policy issues. These issues need to be addressed in a way that balances “real” reality (physical), virtual realities, and augmented realities.
The text discusses how terms like cyber, digital, e, net, tech, and online are often used interchangeably in diplomacy, emphasizing the importance of understanding their specific nuances in the context of digital geopolitics.
It all comes down to semantics and context usage. These prefixes are frequently used in interchangeable ways. It is crucial to determine if a specific usage of cyber diplomacy/digital diplomacy or even e-diplomacy refers only to digital geopolitics, topics, or tools. You can learn more about different usages of prefixes in digital diplomacy.
The Vienna Convention does not dictate specific forms of diplomatic representation, allowing for various options like online diplomacy. Its legality is acknowledged, and the trend’s future prevalence remains uncertain.

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.

Science diplomacy is sometimes seen as a part of public diplomacy, focusing on positive country image. Public diplomacy involves transparent communication with foreign publics to promote national interests, influenced by the concept of soft power by Joseph Nye. However, science diplomacy extends beyond public diplomacy and should not be simplified as such, as it often involves public diplomacy elements for many countries, like the US.
Some approaches subsume science diplomacy under public diplomacy. In this sense, science diplomacy is about winning hearts and minds; it is about creating a positive image of one’s country. For clarity, let us look at a definition of public diplomacy. According to the USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD), it is defined as ‘the transparent means by which a sovereign country communicates with publics in other countries aimed at informing and influencing audiences overseas for the purpose of promoting the national interest and advancing its foreign policy goals. […] The concept of soft power coined by international relations scholar Joseph Nye has, for many, become a core concept in public diplomacy studies. Nye defines soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”‘. From this description and the examples on this page, we can see that science diplomacy is much more than public diplomacy and the one should not be reduced to the other. Having said this, it is important to recognise that for many countries, and in particular the USA, the practice of science diplomacy often has strong elements of public diplomacy.
Science diplomacy is not a new concept, with roots tracing back to the 17th century, encompassing scientific cooperation across borders. The term gained prominence around 2005, though examples predate this. The Royal Society’s foreign secretary position in 1723 exemplifies early science diplomacy efforts. By the late 19th century, states were sending science envoys abroad. Nationalism led to challenges in global cooperation, but science remained a tool for national reputation building. Science attachés were stationed in the 19th century, with increased prominence in the 1950s and 1960s.
Science diplomacy is not a new practice. Yet, the term itself only came into general use relatively recently. While there is not one specific point at which the term emerged in its current use, its prominence in publications and various discourses began around 2005 (Flink and Rüffin, 2019). Yet, examples of science diplomacy can be identified much earlier. Scholars Flink and Rüffin trace science diplomacy, understood as ‘scientific cooperation across borders’, back to the 17th century and the emergence of ‘modern’ science (Flink and Rüffin, 2019). They argue that communication and collaboration among scientists across borders finds its origin there. For example, in 1723, the British Royal Society created the position of ‘foreign secretary’ of the Royal Society. This person was ‘to maintain regular correspondence with scientists overseas to ensure that the Society’s Fellows remained up-to-date with the latest ideas and research findings’ (Royal Society, 2010, p. 1). The emergence of modern nation states in the 19th century and rising nationalism, however, challenged cooperation across borders. Some scientific cooperation across borders, for example in the field of astronomy, still flourished during that time. Nationalism also gave new impetus to scientific progress as a means to foster a nation’s reputation 17and thus emphasised competition. If we focus on science diplomacy as a set of activities and policies pursued by state actors, then the practice of sending representatives abroad to act as ‘science envoys’ or ‘science attachés’ can be traced back to at least the late 19th century (Linkov et al., 2014). In 1898, the USA stationed a science attaché, the zoologist Charles Wardell Stiles, at its Berlin embassy. As part of US diplomacy, science attachés became more prominent in the 1950s and 1960s.
Hybrid meetings allow participants to attend either in person or remotely, ensuring equal opportunities for everyone to engage in discussions.

Hybrid meetings let people join both in person and online, giving everyone a fair chance to talk and take part in the meetings’ discussions.

Three writings of diplomacy detail varying perspectives on the concept: diplomacy in lowercase letters relates to daily conflict resolution and representation; Diplomacy in uppercase signifies the professional realm of negotiations and treaties; DIPLOMACY, all in capital letters, embodies a glamorous, aristocratic facade associated with flags, receptions, and protocol, reminiscent of a historical aristocratic profession.

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.

Cybersecurity entails safeguarding information systems from threats through policies, procedures, and technical solutions, protecting against cyberwar, terrorism, and cybercrime.
Cybersecurity is a protection of the Internet and other information systems from malicious threats, misuse and malfunctioning. Cybersecurity covers wide area including protection from cyberwar, terrorist attack and cybercrime, among others. Cybersecurity is implemented through policies, procedures and technical solutions.
Digital diplomacy encompasses the influence of digital technology on diplomatic activities in terms of changing geopolitical and geoconomic landscapes, new items on the diplomatic agenda, and innovative tools for diplomatic endeavors such as social media and big data.
Digital diplomacy refers to the impact of digital technology on diplomacy in three realms:
  • 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).
The digital divide refers to social inequalities stemming from varying access to computers and the Internet, evident between developed and developing countries, as well as within different demographics and professions.
Digital divide refers to social inequalities created by the introduction of computers and the Internet into human society. It is manifested in differences in number of computers, access to the Internet and available applications. Digital divide is most commonly used to describe the difference between developed and developing countries in the use of digital technology and the Internet. However, divides exists on various levels, including between young and old, urban and rural, and among different professions. 
Diplomacy is the peaceful conduct of international relations through communication, representation, and negotiation between states and international actors to prevent conflict and achieve shared goals. This regulated process involves effective communication as a vital component to ensure successful diplomatic relations.

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.”

Learn more on diplomacy in general, digital diplomacy, science diplomacy, and other types of diplomacy

Join wide range of courses on diplomacy

Online politeness is dwindling as language becomes more divisive and offensive. To maintain e-politeness, use language carefully and avoid sarcasm to prevent causing offense.

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.

Internet governance encompasses the collaborative efforts of governments, the private sector, and civil society to establish shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making processes, and programs that influence the development and utilization of the Internet, as outlined by the World Summit on Information Society in 2005.
Internet governance is defined by the World Summit on Information Society (Tunis Agenda, 2005) as “the development and application by Governments, the private sector, and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.”
The use and importance of online diplomacy are decreasing.
Term online diplomacy is loosing its relevance and traction.
E-politeness refers to demonstrating respect and courtesy in online interactions, mirroring proper behavior expected in face-to-face communication.

E-politeness is about online behaviour that reflects respect and courtesy, just as it should be in real life.

Digital diplomacy encompasses more than just social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, including new technology, agenda-setting, and geopolitical shifts. Despite this broad scope, it is often mistaken for public diplomacy due to the emphasis on these platforms in international relations.
Public diplomacy only covers one aspect of digital diplomacy related to the use of TOOLS for diplomacy including Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Other aspects of digital diplomacy include new TOPICS on diplomatic agenda and changing geopolitical or geo-economic ENVIRONMENT. However, digital diplomacy may sometimes be seen as just public diplomacy because of high media visibility of the use of Twitter and Facebook in international politics.
Science and technology are the pillars of modern society. While science involves knowledge and research, often not focused on solving practical issues, technology is the application of scientific principles. However, the lines between them are increasingly blurred, as they are interconnected and often complement each other. This distinction has become less clear in recent years.

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.

Agenda setting in diplomacy is crucial for placing important issues on global diplomatic agendas. Just like in media, there is a competition for attention in diplomacy. States aim to advance their interests by influencing international organizations to include their agenda items. With various unresolved matters regarding Internet governance, different actors are strategically maneuvering to ensure their issues are prioritized on the emerging Internet diplomatic agendas.

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. 

Science attachés played a crucial role in addressing COVID-19, providing support in crisis response, repatriation efforts, medical technology advice, and information collection. However, they mainly focused on national efforts and faced challenges in collaborating internationally. The experience has led to suggestions for improving science attachés’ work. More details can be found in the article “Science Attachés in a Post-COVID-19 World: Taking Stock of the Crisis from Science Diplomacy”.
Science attachés played an important role in the response to COVID-19. In the cases of France and the UK, the science attaché network was particularly important as part of the initial crisis response. This included supporting repatriation efforts and giving advice in the area of medical technologies to colleagues from other fields, such as trade. Later, science attachés were important in collecting information on initiatives and publications in their geographic region. It is interesting to observe, though, that they mainly supported national efforts while Unsurprisingly, science attachés played an important role in the response to COVID-19. In the cases of France and the UK, the science attaché network was particularly important as part of the initial crisis response. This included supporting repatriation efforts and giving advice in the area of medical technologies to colleagues from other fields, such as trade. Later, science attachés were important in collecting information on initiatives and publications in their geographic region. It is interesting to observe, though, that they mainly supported national efforts while struggling to maintain contact and collaborate with colleagues from other countries. Based on this experience, a number of suggestions have been made on how to improve the work of science attachés. You can read more in the article Science Attachés in a Post-COVID-19 World: Taking Stock of the Crisis from Science & Diplomacy.
The concept of diplomacy dates back to ancient civilizations, evolving over time to become a structured practice involving negotiation and communication between nations. Diplomacy has been utilized for centuries to manage international relations, facilitate agreements, prevent conflicts, and promote cooperation among countries. Its origins can be traced to ancient Greek and Roman times, where envoys were tasked with conducting diplomatic missions and resolving disputes peacefully. Over the centuries, the practice of diplomacy has continued to develop and adapt to the changing global landscape, playing a crucial role in international affairs to this day.
This triptych illustration describes the first diplomatic 'encounter'

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… 

Join the discussion on online etiqutte and etiquettee-politeness by posting your comments bellow

[1] Although he was not particularly polite personally, J.J. Rousseau included politeness in his philosophy by describing it as a reflection of the genuine internal self.

[2] Coffee houses are both real and metaphorical places. As real places they exist. But, metaphorically, they are places for public discussion.

Note: Original research was conducted in  2013

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1 reply
  1. David
    David says:

    Adapting to online etiquette rules in 2022 is crucial for respectful and productive virtual interactions. Stay mindful and considerate!


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