Monday, March 26, 2007

Miss Conduct

I love the etiquette column in The Boston Globe. In fact, I love all etiquette columns. Knowing the rules of proper social engagement, and having standards to reply upon to structure my interactions with others - particularly uncomfortable ones - causes me great relief.

So, the first part of the Sunday Magazine section of The Globe I always read first is "Miss Conduct" by Robin Abrams. I was thrilled when I read this week's collection of social instructions (March 25, 2007) and discovered a question I had recently sent to Miss Conduct had been answered. It can be found here and is excerpted below.

“Did you get my e-mail?” was the way a friend recently started a phone conversation. Her e-mail, sent days before, was interesting but contained neither a query nor information begging for a response. I heard a clear “Why didn’t you respond to me?” in her tone. When correspondence comes with no obvious question, whether it’s sent electronically or by mail, how long do you have to respond?
G.K. in Somerville

There really aren’t any rules for this sort of thing, and if there were, people would ignore them. Factors like time pressure, writing style (are you a breezy-note person or a long-thoughtful-monograph person?), and psychological makeup (are you an intimacy person or a “give me my space” person?) are going to have a lot more sway over correspondence behavior than rules in a book ever could.

When you and a friend have different expectations, you have two choices on how to deal with it. One is to go along with your friend’s preferences and know that an e-mail or letter from Cozy Cara requires a response pronto. A brief note or e-mail saying, “Wow, how interesting! I can’t write much now but let’s talk soon. I’ve been thinking about you” should be enough. Or you can gradually accustom your correspondents to your own style. For example, you could have said, “Oh, I don’t always get around to responding to e-mails right away – but that was so interesting what you were saying about the connections between Buddhist philosophy and neuroscience.” Eventually C.C. will learn that a lack of immediate response does not mean a lack of sympathy or affection.

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