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5 tips for better online etiquette at work

Brandi Gratis

Brandi Gratis

November 17, 2023

Picking up on passive-aggressiveness, annoyance, or sarcasm is easy in person. But put those words into text, and anything can be taken the wrong way if you’re not careful. Whether you’re leaving feedback on a shared diagram or assigning a task in your project management software, it’s crucial to understand online etiquette.

This starts with thinking about what, how, and where we’re communicating. Some things are okay to write in a group chat or comment on a shared doc, while others should be left to direct messaging or not said at all. And sometimes, you just have to remember the power of a well-placed emoji.

Don’t get caught accidentally being a jerk because you didn’t think through the differences between verbal and written communication. Here are three insights to enhance your online etiquette and foster effective communication:

The period predicament

One of the most common ways people interpret curtness or passive aggression in written form is with the use of periods. Periods can come across as angry, disinterested, or even disrespectful.

Person A: Have you had a chance to look at that doc yet?
Person B: No.

Person C: What did you get for lunch today?
Person D: A sandwich.

Person E: How are you today?
Person F: Fine.

It’s not just the brevity of these answers that makes them seem harsh; it’s also the punctuation itself.

When it comes to written communication between one or more persons, linguists have noticed a new trend: people aren’t using periods anymore.

Professor Crystal, whose books include “Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation,” the period is being deployed as a weapon to show irony, syntactic snark, insincerity, even aggression

If the love of your life just canceled the candlelit, six-course, home-cooked dinner you have prepared, you are best advised to include a period when you respond “Fine.” to show annoyance

“Fine” or “Fine!,” in contrast, could denote acquiescence or blithe acceptance

“The period now has an emotional charge and has become an emoticon of sorts,” Professor Crystal said

– From the NY Times piece Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style

Does every person who simply answers “No.” to a question mean to be curt? Absolutely not. And it would be great if we lived in a world where we always gave each other the benefit of the doubt. But, whether you share this opinion of periods or not, it exists as a real phenomenon, and it’s not going anywhere.

Real-time respect

11:15 AM Hey, can you review the copy I just sent over for the next email newsletter?

11:18 AM Let me know when you can review it.

11:30 AM I’d like to get this done ASAP.

Following up too often won’t necessarily get you answers more quickly, but it’s sure to annoy your teammate.

We’ve all felt the sting of anticipation when we need an answer to a question/request, especially when we can see that our colleague is online — and maybe even have a read receipt of the message we sent.

Real-time messaging does not ensure that your question will take real-time priority over anyone else’s work. Your teammate will get to it when they see fit. If you feel that their level of urgency isn’t appropriate or might compromise a significant deadline, get up and walk over to them (or set up a call if they’re remote.) Just keep in mind that if they were too busy to respond a few seconds ago, chances are you’re interrupting them now.

Constructive yet considerate criticism

Public chat topics and comment sections are great for team collaboration, but you need to be aware of your audience, especially when providing criticism or negative feedback.

Person A: I’m just waiting for the client to send back there final approval.
Person B: Their*

We all know that delivering criticism, negative feedback, or corrections to someone’s work can quickly go wrong. Doing so in public is even trickier.

You may feel like you’re just trying to be helpful (or even playful!), but if the person’s mistake is relatively harmless or easily correctable, it’s best not to address it in a group setting.

Notice something off in someone’s report or see a few grammatical errors your coworker may have missed? Send them a direct message about it. They’re much more likely to take the feedback as genuinely helpful, and you’ll have spared them any embarrassment they may have felt had this been brought to the attention of their entire team or even higher-up executives.

If it turns out the mistake eventually does need to be addressed in public, this tactic also allows the team member who made the mistake the chance to own up to the error and take responsibility for correcting it.

In the end, you won’t just avoid hurt feelings; you’ll likely end up with an incredibly thankful coworker.

As a last resort, when there’s no time for DM’s and covert fixes, you can correct someone in a public thread, but be polite and frame your feedback in a way that gives your colleague the benefit of the doubt.

Getting emoji(onal)

Emojis serve as digital expressions of emotion, injecting a dose of humanity into our text-based conversations. Incorporating appropriate emojis can add warmth, convey tone, and prevent misunderstandings. A well-placed smiley face or thumbs-up can soften a message, making your communication more approachable and amicable.

Without emoji: Hey, just finished the report. Let me know your thoughts.

With emoji: Hey, just finished the report. 🎉 Let me know your thoughts.

Adding an emoji in the example above not only conveys a sense of accomplishment but also infuses a touch of enthusiasm, making the message more engaging and positive.

Just be sure to consider your audience. If you’re communicating with colleagues or clients, opt for more professional or universally understood emojis. Save the quirky ones for friends.

And remember, a poorly chosen emoji can convey a whole lot, too.

Without emoji: “Thanks for sharing the progress update on the challenging project. It seems like a tough situation, and I appreciate your efforts in handling it.”

With emoji: “Thanks for sharing the progress update on the challenging project 😂. It seems like a tough situation, and I appreciate your efforts in handling it.”

This laughing emoji could be perceived as insensitive, dismissive, or even mocking. The conversation’s context and emotional tone should greatly influence your emoji options. We want them to enhance rather than detract from your intended message.

BTW too many acronyms and abbreviations

In the fast-paced world of online communication, acronyms and abbreviations can be a real timesaver. However, their overuse or misuse can cause confusion. Before hitting send, consider how likely your audience is to be familiar with the abbreviations you employ and reserve them for contexts where brevity is essential. Avoid excessive use, especially in professional communications, to maintain clarity and professionalism.

Without abbreviations: Good morning! I wanted to discuss the key performance indicators (KPIs) for the upcoming quarterly financial report. Could we schedule a meeting to go over the details? Let me know your availability.

With abbreviations: GM! I wanted to discuss the KPIs for the upcoming QFR. Could we schedule a meeting to go over the details? LMK your availability.

While abbreviations can save time, too many can make the message unclear. This could lead to misunderstandings or make others feel alienated or ashamed when having to ask what you mean.

Online etiquette at work

We all communicate differently, but learning online etiquette can go a long way in making sure misunderstandings happen as infrequently and innocuously as possible. And it’s paramount for fostering a positive and collaborative work environment. By being mindful of the nuances in written communication, you can navigate these virtual spaces with finesse. Remember, effective online communication isn’t just about the words you choose but also about how you convey your tone and intention. So, whether you’re engaging in a project management platform or contributing to a shared document, applying these tips ensures that your online interactions contribute to a harmonious and efficient work environment.

This post was originally published on March 8, 2019, and updated most recently on November 17, 2023.



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