Unscrambling tech etiquette

Features -- Moxie -- Etiquette on email, cell phones and other business / technology situations. Alphabet for spelling 'etiquette,' 'p's & q's' and 'faq's'. (Photo Illustration/Wade Spees/Staff)

You've mastered the handshake — firm but not bone-crushing — and could introduce Emily Post to Miss Manners without either of them raising a brow. But with the prevalence of technology such as e-mail and BlackBerrys in business communications, there's a new set of rules, and even polished professionals may need a little help.

To make sense of tech etiquette, we took our questions to the local pros. Here's what they said.


Q: How long can I take to respond to an e-mail without being rude?

A: Two days tops, and that's pushing it.

"If you go over the 48-hour time frame, it's OK, it happens; just apologize," says Cynthia Grosso, founder and president of the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette. "You want to make sure they don't think they're not of value."

Q: I know business e-mails are different from formal business letters I learned to write in school, but what parts do they need to include?

— Salutation: Dear so and so, or just the name.

— Greeting: Hello, good morning, good afternoon, good evening.

— Close: Best, best regards, kindest regards, sincerely.

— Your name: When a person signs with the first and last name, call them Mr., Ms., or Dr. so and so in your response. If he or she signs with his or her first name only, you can use the first name.

— Signature: Personal information goes in this order: Your name, company name, street address, P.O. Box, Web site, e-mail, fax number and phone number.

— And don't forget the subject line. "A simple hello in business communications would not necessarily be appropriate because when you're sending an e-mail, it's usually for a reason," says Shauna Heathman, owner of Mackenzie Image Consulting. "You want to be clear on the reason in your subject line but still make sure it's short and concise."

Q: When should I send a handwritten note or letter instead of an e-mail?

— To say thank you. A handwritten note holds more meaning, Grosso says. "But a thank you in an e-mail is better than no thank you at all."

— To send condolences. It's appropriate to express sympathy via e-mail if e-mail is how the other person shared the news, but you always should follow up with a handwritten note, Heathman says.

— When your message is so private you don't want to chance the recipient forwarding it on. "Even though they can still show it to someone, it's not as easy as shooting an e-mail," Heathman said.

Q: Are there times a phone call is better than an e-mail?

"That's a preference thing, and there are pluses to both," Grosso said. "What I mainly teach is, just be careful because we have gotten away from face-to-face or personal contact, as in speaking to someone or seeing someone, and this is very scary. One of the mistakes that people find in business ... is that people try to have a relationship totally via technology. I don't agree with that at all. So I absolutely think that the relationship needs to be a combination of e-mail, phone and personal face-to-face time."

Heathman says to choose the phone when you're trying to explain something extremely detailed or need to ask a lot of questions.

Q: What do you think about including smiley faces, patterned backgrounds or colored text?

A: A resounding no to smiley faces. Patterned backgrounds? Maybe, if it doesn't make the e-mail difficult to read. Grosso uses a cream, linen-like background. Heathman warns that graphics and photos may not translate to everyone's computer. Text is best in black, though Grosso also gives the go-ahead to charcoal gray.

Q: How about exclamation points?

A: "I think the exclamation point is overused," Heathman said. "The meaning of it kind of gets lost. And also multiple instances of exclamation points or question marks can sometimes be perceived as rude or condescending to other people."

Q: Is it wrong to forward an e-mail I received from my supervisor or co-worker to another co-worker?

A: Yes. If the e-mail was meant for that person, it would have been sent to him. Heathman says if you want to forward an e-mail, get the author's permission.

Q: I'm guessing forwarding those e-mails with photos of puppies napping next to babies is unprofessional.

A: Good guess. "Everything about you speaks," Grosso said. "You know, you brand yourself. When something comes from you, whether it's your business card, or your stationery or your e-mail, or your presentation personally, all of that needs to speak well of you."

Q: Any other thoughts on e-mail etiquette?

A: "Because it's so informal these days, when someone does take the time to format their sentence structure and use the right grammar and be professional, it definitely stands out," Heathman says.

She often gets e-mails from students wanting an internship or job, and because they're sending over e-mail they think they can disregard spelling, grammar and sentence structure, she says. "I don't even think twice about it. It immediately gets deleted. If people can't take the time to properly format an e-mail to someone, then to me, to the other person who's receiving it, it's saying that they really don't care as much as they probably think they do."

Grosso advises rereading e-mails before sending them. She even prints them out to check for errors.

Cell phones, BlackBerrys

Q: Can I answer my cell phone at work?

A: Be careful with this. You're still on company time. "People may not say something to you, but don't think they don't notice," Grosso says. "They do."

And you don't want the entire office hearing about the party you were at last night or your latest weekend plans, Heathman says. If you have to take a personal call, find a private place and keep it short.

Q: Should I turn the ringer off while on the job?

A: Yes.

Q: What about setting it on the table during a business lunch if I need to peek at who calls or e-mails?

A: A huge no-no. "A ringing cell phone does not take precedence over a face-to-face conversation," Grosso says. "And this is a big deal. If you do answer that phone when you're in a conversation with somebody, it makes that person feel that they're not as important. Be very careful with that in business. It sends a very bad signal."

On the rare occasions when you're expecting an urgent call, tell the person you're dining with in advance.

Even then, the phone should be on vibrate in your pocket or lap, not on the table, Heathman says.

Q: Is sending a quick text message wrong when I'm in the office?

A: Heathman says, "The overall idea with this is to not let your cell phone distract from what you're doing at work. If you have to deal with a personal issue or speak with a friend during the day, sometimes a text message is a great route to go because it's quiet, others aren't hearing your conversation and it's quick."

Long text conversations, on the other hand, are not OK. Grosso says to simply wait until you get a break.

Q: Is every fun ring tone considered unprofessional?

A: Your ring tone won't matter if your phone is set on silent or vibrate at work like it should be. Grosso considers hers fun. It's a piano riff. And Heathman's is the theme to Super Mario Brothers.

"The kind of ring tone a person has on their phone can say a lot sometimes, good or bad," Heathman says. "This reminds me actually of a guy I used to work with who had his wife's ring tone set to "Sexual Healing," and he always had it turned up really high, and so every time she called, you hear that song. And the worst part about it is when you have the song stuck in your head for the rest of the day."

Q: What do I need to keep in mind when setting up my cell phone voice mail greeting?

A: "I say keep it short, keep it courteous and keep it fairly traditional." Heathman says.

Q: Other thoughts on cell phones or BlackBerrys?

A: Often you see people in public calling or texting, and they're in their own worlds, Grosso says.

But it's common courtesy to acknowledge those around you. You don't need to strike up a conversation; but make eye contact and give a smile or "hello."

Blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter

Q: I've heard talk of employers changing their minds about job candidates based on what they see about them online. Do you think that really happens?

A: Yes. Heathman cites a survey by CareerBuilder that says 1 out of 5 company managers check applicants' Facebook profiles before they make a decision, and out of those, one-third were rejected because of what the employers saw.

"Even with revealing likes and dislikes or your political party, your favorite movies, different preferences, sometimes that can make the difference between you and someone else getting the job," Heathman says. "So I personally think it's just safer to keep that information private."

Grosso knows employers who have checked out potential employees online. "It costs an employer a lot of money to bring somebody in," Grosso says. "It costs them lot to train them. So they're really trying to find out as much as they can about you."

Q: What should I not post in a blog or social networking site?

A: "Think about it like personalizing your desk at work. You know how you have your office space and you have your different pictures up, and maybe a card, or different quotes, and you don't mind what your co-workers see in your office space. So treat your Facebook or your MySpace or your blog like that. Anything that you don't mind them seeing is fine. Anything that you wouldn't generally post on your desk or wall, why would you do that online, which they can see?" Heathman said.

Also, remember that blogs and social networking sites "leave little online footprints that can easily be searched" by typing your name into a search engine, Heathman says. When possible, actively monitor who can see what. With blogs, use a screen name instead of your real one.

Q: How much can I say online about my work, my employer and my co-workers?

A: Pretty close to nothing. Also, many companies have codes of conduct that ban this.

Q: Is it wrong to check Facebook at work, just for a second?

A: Yes. "They can track everywhere you've been," Grosso says of employers. "I don't know why people think they wouldn't."