It used to be a little more clear. You wake up, shower, and make breakfast in one place. ...
Issue #5
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The unbearable sadness of zoom happy hours

It used to be a little more clear. You wake up, shower, and make breakfast in one place. Then you move your precious physical self (somewhat reluctantly) to “Another Place.” And as you enter Another Place, your mind automatically shifts from “personal me” to “work me.” Among many other reasons, this shift can be largely attributed to the dumbfounding fact that there are other people at this Another Place, and you all somewhat know each other. (Terrifying indeed.) But all annoying office minutiae aside (dishes left in the sink, differences in music tastes, etc., we’ve all been there), this shared space provides instant, uninhibited access to each other’s physical persons. It allows ad hoc spontaneous conversations can happen, where you can just go and “Hey have you got a sec,” and “I have an idea: what if we…” and so on. All of which is next to impossible online.
🔮 Back to the future

To call or not to call, that is the question

Chaos and confusion as byproducts of new technology is nothing new. Up until a certain point in U.S. history (the late 19th century) landline phones didn’t exist — until they did, and people were arguing over how to properly use them. Just try to imagine how incredibly strange it was to hear another person’s voice next to your ear in your home. In 1910, AT&T launched an ad campaign claiming that fighting on the phone was not a respectable thing to do. AT&T also tried to portray answering the phone with “Hello” as bad manners. (Ironically, a similar argument is presently being made against these sort of greetings in instant messenger.)

Not only that, but until the mid-1920s it was considered rude (by etiquette experts) to invite guests to a party by a telephone. The proper way to go about it was to send a card by post. (The reasoning behind this was that a phone invitation would put your guests on the spot and is, therefore, just a little bit rude.)

But then, gradually, everyone got used to calling each other, and a new set of rules developed and stuck. Flash forward to the early 20th century and ear etiquette has swung back the other way. Are you hard-pressed to think of the last time you made a spontaneous phone call to someone's landline? You’re not alone. The technology moved on again and alongside it, the manners. A new normal became, well, the new normal. After all, it’s never about the technology itself — it’s about the mutual expectations we as a society place upon them and how we use them.

🙅‍♂️DON'T @ ME

Online etiquette is a sophisticated mess

Be it Slack or Discord, Microsoft Teams or Google Chat, your office is now basically a bunch of text channels — the digital equivalent of an open space and a meeting room combined.

In these tools, your status probably provides the closest illusion of presence. You can set status messages for more context, some of which can even happen automatically thanks to some ingenious add-ons and extensions. The problem is that none of it matches the elegance and simplicity of actually seeing a person (whether they’re at the desk or on the phone or looking at memes), plus keeping your status up-to-date requires enormous discipline, plus it requires that everyone follows the same intricate system of rules and agreements — because if like 60 people do it and the other 30 don’t, then the whole thing becomes complete useless.

All of which is to say: There’s no way of knowing whether you’ll get a response to your 👋 in five seconds or in five hours. There’s no agreed-upon etiquette (although calling someone up on Zoom without checking with them prior is probably, definitely 100% a universal faux pas). All these rules are rarely articulated explicitly, because it’s all a bit too complex and there’s more important things to do and talk about, always, and so everyone just goes with their habits and gut feeling — which is not a bad thing per se, but can potentially lead to mess and chaos and more misunderstanding, unless properly moderated.

Another way to describe the online office is Constant Uncertainty (which might have been a title for this newsletter, probably). You don’t know if the other person is there or not. You don’t know if they’re not responding because they’re busy with something urgent, or because they’re AWK, or because your message somehow came across badly and/or offended them and/or made them uncomfortable — or even because they simply missed your messages among dozens of other notifications.

Instead of ignoring this problem (not even a problem, really, just a fact of life) and letting everyone figure it out on their own, pretending that it’s all quote-unquote common knowledge, companies should explicitly address it. Admit that talking online is hard. Agree to invest time in the meta conversation about “how we work.” Provide guidelines. Clarify expectations. Make things easy for everyone. Reduce confusion and uncertainty.

Listen, until the rules are set in place, no one has the right to judge you for posting cat GIFs in #general (with @channel, of course) every fifteen minutes.

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