When I was a 10-year-old Girl Scout, my troop took an etiquette class. We learned how to thank someone for a gift, signal to a waiter that we were done with a meal and send cards for each major milestone. I remember thinking how easy it seemed, that all I had to do was memorize a long list of rules and I would be set — any uncomfortable situation could be solved, any question could be answered.
Nearly 20 years later, things have taken a turn. The thank-you-note skills I learned still apply, but what about thank-you emails? Thank-you texts? Thank-you DMs? I know exactly the right fork to choose for a salad course, but what about choosing a filter for an Instagram photo of a friend?
You could call social media the Wild, Wild West, sure, but there are some rules — it’s just nearly impossible to figure out what they are. Once I learned how long I had to respond to Snapchats, I had to do the same with Instagram stories. I am still not sure when a text requires a response, a thumbs up or a double exclamation point. But I am in the same boat as everyone else I know. We all hover above our phones or behind our computer screens, not quite convinced what we are doing is right, afraid of offending our friends, bosses and in-laws.
So, in an attempt to gain some clarity, I did what our Girl Scout troop leaders did and consulted the experts. Social media gurus Olivia Howell, founder of Howell Media House, and Kim Ring, founder of Ring Communications, guide their clients (and friends) through the ins and outs of digital etiquettes. The rules may shift by next year — even next month — but for once, I know what I am doing.
The situation: Your friends are constantly sliding into your direct messages (DMs) while you are trying to stay on top of emails. How long can you wait before responding?
The proper response: DMs are tricky, because whoever is DMing you can see that you have seen what they sent — or that you have been on Instagram or Twitter but have not bothered to open their message. “Don’t leave someone hanging too long, as it can get personal,” says Howell, who adheres to a 24-hour time frame when answering DMs. If you’re swamped, she says, “at least send an emoji!”
If you are trying to cut back on social media or avoid it at work, make it clear that DMs are not the best way to reach out. “Friends and family know that if they need something from me, [they should] text,” says Ring. “When I see them in my DMs, I assume they’re just sending me something funny and a response can wait.”
The situation: Your friend and her ex had a nasty breakup, but he just posted the cutest picture of his dog (or, perhaps, himself). Is it ever OK to like or comment?
The proper response: It depends on your pre-relationship relationship. “If I only knew the person through my friend and they had a rocky ending, I tend to unfollow altogether,” says Ring. “It’s not worth hurting a true friend just to get a few more likes on your selfie.”
If the ex is a longtime friend, give it a moment before proceeding with caution. “The thing with break-ups is that everyone involved is looking for clues all the time,” says Howell. “I say stay away of a friend’s ex’s social media for a few months. Don’t get involved!”
The situation: You do not mind read receipts. Are they bothering your friends and family?
The proper response: Maybe. “I am so not a fan of read receipts, only because I have a family and don’t always reply right away,” says Howell. “I can see how it would be beneficial, but they make me anxious!” If you are a lightning-fast responder, do not sweat it. But if you are worried friends think you are flaky — or get irked when others leave you on read — switch receipts off.
The situation: You are scrolling through Pinterest on a Saturday and find the best recipe for brownies. You know your officemate has been dying to make some — should you send the recipe now, or wait until you are back in the office?
The proper response: Consider your workplace boundaries. Would the note seem like an intrusion? If so, best to hold off. If the boundaries are a little looser, feel free to pass along — over social media. “It’s fine to DM them something on Instagram, but there’s no need to email after hours,” says Howell.
The situation: Your hard-to-reach sister’s FaceTiming you, but you are walking down the street sans headphones. Should you pick up?
The proper response: “Nope,” says Howell, then again, for emphasis: “Nope.”
If it seems urgent, says Ring, pick up, mute the call and signal that you will call her back. “We all should be respectful enough to not add more noise to people’s personal space,” she says. “With all of the digital, physical and audio exhaust that surrounds us, we all deserve a little peace when possible.”
The situation: You just applied for a killer new job. You sent an email — but what about a card?
The proper response: “Emails always work, but there is something to be said about that extra effort it takes to send a card,” says Ring. If nothing else, it shows that you are willing to go above and beyond.
The situation: Your coworker’s sister just had the most beautiful wedding, and you would love to see more pics — but she’s private on IG. Is it fine to request to follow?
The proper response: Think it through: Would you want your siblings’ coworkers following you? “Unless you have met them in person multiple times — rather than once at a happy hour or wedding — and asked [your coworker] first, nope,” says Howell. “Gotta keep ’em separated!”
The situation: You are about to post the cutest shot of you and a friend. You do some light editing on your own face — but what about your friend’s?
The proper response: Don’t even think about it. “The only time it is acceptable is if your friend wants you to FaceTune or edit [them],” says Ring. “But even then, you should get their approval before you post. Filters are one thing but changing the way someone’s digital self is represented without their permission is another.” If your photo starts to feel unbalanced, stick to editing solo pics and leave group shots alone.
The situation: You check Snapchat for the first time in weeks — and see that your ex has posted a story. Is it OK to watch?
The proper response: Move on. You will just cause yourself some heartache — and your ex some confusion. “Out of sight, out of mind,” says Ring. “That kind of torture is something called SMasochism: social media masochism. Don’t do it. Move on emotionally, mentally and digitally.”
The situation: You love sending audio messages rather than typing. But do your friends love getting them?
The proper response: Honestly? They are kind of a pain. “I always try to follow someone’s lead,” says Ring. “If you text, I text back. If I don’t respond to your voice message, it’s because I’m in a situation where I can’t listen.” If you are chatting with a close friend and voice messages are your thing, send away. But if you are communicating with someone who might not get it, stick to typing, or just dictate what you want to say into a good, old-fashioned text message using your phone’s technology.
The situation: You just nailed an interview and really clicked with your potential boss. Is it weird to follow her on Twitter?
The proper response: Yep, says Howell, it is weird: “You can check them out for sure, but don’t follow!” If your potential boss is a minor (or major) industry celeb, you might be able to get away with it. But really, why risk it? Just wait until you have landed the gig.
The situation: You are stalking your ex’s new beau and accidentally like a pic. Eek!
The proper response: If you catch it instantly, immediately unlike. Instagram claims this will stop a notification, but it is unclear how much time you have. “If you don’t realize until way after you did it, still unlike but don’t mention it,” advises Ring. “Pretend like it never happened and hope nobody brings it up.”
The situation: You comment on someone’s Instagram post. Another friend replies to your comment. Do you take your response to the DMs, or do have a full-blown conversation in your mutual pal’s comments?
The proper response: “Feel free to comment away — as long as it’s friendly!” says Howell. “I love the engagement in Instagram comments. It’s how people’s [followings] grow, too.” Just keep in mind that your friend is getting a notification with each comment, so do not go too crazy. If you are making plans (and especially if the original photo poster isn’t involved), switch to texting instead.
The situation: You are playing hooky and just posted an Instagram story — then remembered your boss follows you.
The proper response: “First, check to see if your boss is in the ‘viewed by’ list,” suggests Ring. “If not, delete and hope for the best. If your boss saw it and brings it up, apologize. Social media lying always gets ugly. You’re better off being honest.”
Consider it a reminder to think before you post, even if it is just a mindless story or tweet. “Quick-draw thumbs can cost you a job, a relationship, a friend, money and about a million other things,” says Ring. “Always think about every possible outcome that one post could cause. Then think about them again. And again. And again.”
The situation: Your Insta-stories can get a little NSFW. Should you block your coworkers?
The proper response: Unless you work at a bar, says Howell, “I’d hide them.” If you are worried people will notice and think you are unfriendly, consider posting anything scandalous to close friends, and the puppy pics to all. But if you are that concerned about your coworkers reading into your Instagram settings, it might be time to reevaluate your workplace.
The situation: You just realized you do not follow a friend/coworker/relative who has followed you for a while. Help!
The proper response: Take a deep breath, pull on your big girl pants and hit that follow button. If you are worried feelings might be hurt, head off any awkwardness by reaching out first. “Send a DM saying you’re happy to be connected, then do right by them and comment on a few of their posts going forward,” suggests Ring.
If you realize face-to-face and feel uncomfortable, jokes Howell, just blame it on the app. “Sometimes, Instagram cleans up followers and I’ve had to re-follow people I knew I was following,” says Howell. “Also, it’s social media, not the end of the world.”
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