Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, December 14, 2007

Communication Etiquette For Mobile, Chat And VoIP: How Not To Be Socially Intrusive When Communicating Online

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How often do you find yourself annoyed by the fact someone is suddenly ringing you on Skype as if it was the equivalent of a normal phone? Do you hesitate on whether to hang-up or erupt verbally as you answer the unknown calling party?

Photo credit: Alastor

Well, if this can comfort you, you are not alone. Scores of new people join the Internet everyday, and many more discover VoIP, Skype, instant messaging just like you did when they first came around. But, as you well know, true media literacy and netetiquette are not automatically learned by those who embrace these new communication technologies for the first time.

Understanding that having voice communications and making calls on the net is not the same as in the physical world, may appear unnatural at first, but it is of critical importance if you want to start positive relationship and be accepted as true digital citizen by your fellow mates.

What escapes the most at first, is the realization that on the net, there is no need to intrude, interrupt, distract. Just like for advertising, the online world offers true alternatives to the interruptive practices of our modern world. Ads can be contextual and text-based as much as voice calls can be preceded by messages asking the party to be called whether she is available and willing to take a call.

The online world also permits everyone to respond at his own pace. No need to be there for every message and call and to answer them one by one. Those who tell you that they know it all about the Internet, that they have been chatting since theuy were kids and who then keep their Skype turned off, because they don't want to be interrupted, little they have understood of how things really work online.

As a matter of fact, you don't need to turn off any of these fantastic real-time and asynchronous communication tools in order not to be distracted. You only need to start learning them, because each one of them offers plenty of ways to act as a perfect secretary, assistant and message recorder, never ringing or flashing on your screen... as long as...

a) Start learning how to use them for real (by reading and not assuming you already know it all)

b) Evangelize your newly learned kmnowledge and share it with your friends

c) Don't take for granted that what is normal practice in the physical world is standard also in the online world.

Ken Thompson, guru of the logic and organizational strategies of high performance virtual teams, suggests a simple tentative proposal for a better digital communication etiquette.

New communication technologies should be meant to make your life easier and richer, not more frantic, stressed, and disorganized... or not?

Here is what the bioteaming guru recommends:

Intro by Robin Good


Intrusive Mobile and Internet Technologies: an Etiquette for Socially Responsible Use

by Ken Thompson

In any communication using intrusive communications technologies such as mobile phones, SMS, VoiP and IM there are actually 4 different parties who each have rights (and obligations).

In this article I suggest a structure for a "Polite Intrusive Technologies Etiquette" .

PolITE - Polite Intrusive Technologies Etiquette

Photo credit: Julien Tromeur

A "Polite Intrusive Technologies Etiquette" (PoLITE for short) needs to show due consideration to all of these parties in such a communication in at least the following areas:

  • Privacy
  • Unavailability
  • Reasonable Response
  • Full Attention
  • Reasonable Continuity
  • Non-Disruption

Some thought has already been given to this in the mobile phone space for example, European Communications Magazine (Jan 2005) report on the results of a study into the etiquette of business communications in the digital age, undertaken by Surrey Social and Market Research (SSMR) at the University of Surrey, Guildford, England.

The study suggests eight useful guidelines for the considerate use of mobile phones:

  1. Have your mobile off or on silent in meetings
  2. Change your mobile voicemail to request text for urgent messages
  3. Turn your device screens off when holding meetings in your office
  4. If you are expecting an urgent call apologise and warn others in advance
  5. The person you are talking to deserves your full attention
  6. Hold private calls in private places
  7. Break out of e-mail jail - talk to your colleagues
  8. Technology is not power - it doesn't signify your importance

But can we develop a more generalised Polite Intrusive Technologies Etiquette which covers more than just mobile phones?

The diagram below attempts to summarise the four parties and six different rights they hold:


It would be possible to create a 16 cell matrix where we showed the required etiquette for each of the four parties (receivers, senders, engaged parties and disinterested parties) and each of the four technologies (mobile phones, SMS, VoIP and IM) .
However in the interest of brevity and simplicity here is my discussion starter on a Polite Intrusive Technologies Etiquette

Party 1. The Receiver



The two most important rights of the Receiver would seem to be "Privacy" and "Unavailability". The two are interrelated -

a) privacy is about not taking a call at all and

b) unavailability is about finding a convenient time to take a call.


To protect these rights there is an obligation on the sender - for example using VoiP (such as Skype) they should follow the practice of "Ping before Ring" - i.e. messaging to establish if a VoIP call is convenient before it is actually made.

Party 2. The Sender



The most important right of the Sender in this case would seem to be "Reasonable Response" - the expectation of an appropriate reply in a certain timeframe dependent on the subject of the communications and the relationship between receiver and sender.


To protect this right I suggest there is an obligation on the receiver to keep their presence information up to date so that the sender can see when a response can be expected. Also, if possible, the receiver should try to acknowledge that they have received the message and even better if they can offer a "by when" for a reply.

In addition the receiver should treat seriously the act of putting somebody on their buddy list. It would be better to decline such a request at the outset than to include someone only to neglect communicating with them. To me putting you on my buddy list implies I am offering to communicate with you on reasonable topics of shared interest in a reasonable timeframe. Even better if both parties can agree expectations here.

Party 3. Engaged Parties


These are the people who may be already in a communications session with either the sender or the receiver when the other communication happens


The two most important rights of the Engaged Parties would seem to be "Full Attention" and "Reasonable Continuity".

a) The first is about not expecting the other party to be multi-tasking so much that they are not paying attention.

b) The second is the expectation that the communication once started should not be fragmented through multiple or long interruptions.


To protect these rights I suggest there is an obligation on the sender and receiver to wherever possible avoid initiating or replying to communications whilst they are already in communications.

Party 4. Disinterested Parties


These are the people who are not in any communications session with either the sender or the receiver but may be impacted when another communication happens. For example, a phone call ringing in a concert hall audience!


The most important right of the Disinterested Parties would seem to be the "Non-Disruption" for example by a loud ringing tone or by being forced to hear a conversation in which they have no part.


This seems to mostly apply to audio calls (Mobile or VoIP). To protect this right I suggest there is an obligation on the sender and receiver to fully use their voice mail facilities on mobile phone and VoIP. Read this article on Social Mobile research is very relevant here.

Originally written by Ken Thompson for Bioteams as "Intrusive Mobile and Internet Technologies: an etiquette for socially responsible use" and first published on June 2 2006

About the author

Ken Thompson is a researcher, writer, and entrepreneur focusing on the world of high performance teams, and on the transfer of the best teaming practices from the biological world. He has published an interesting paper entitled "The Bioteaming Manifesto" which illustrates the basic principles of his vision. Ken publishes his best articles at and has a mini-site dedicated to collaboration techniques.

Ken Thompson -
Reference: Bioteams [ Read more ]
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posted by Robin Good on Friday, December 14 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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