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Digital Etiquette for the 21st Century

There was a time when adults turned to Emily Post to help them know how to behave. She was an author and journalist who educated mid-20th century America about etiquette and manners. Much of what she said back then about "please" and "thank you" remains useful. But in the 21st century, we have to think about how to apply those concepts to the digital world.

Let's start with one of the basic tenants of etiquette - the notes we send to thank people or to acknowledge a birthday or special occasion. There was a time when it was considered essential to pen and mail off a thank-you note after going to someone's house for dinner or receiving any type of gift. Today I think it's acceptable to use e-mail for this purpose. A simple e-mail should be sufficient to thank a business colleague for a meeting or to thank someone who invites you to their home for dinner or picks up a restaurant tab.

But I wouldn't recommend using only e-mail to thank someone for a wedding, bar mitzvah or confirmation gift. It's fine to send a thank you by e-mail but, for these types of typically substantial gifts, I think it adds to the dignity of the occasion to follow it up with a note.

Greetings for birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions are a bit tricky. Many people still buy cards and send them via snail mail, which is certainly still appropriate. Others prefer using e-cards. If you are going to send an electronic greeting card, make sure you use a legitimate service, such as, or

It's not uncommon for free greeting card services to display advertising, not only to you when you send the card, but also to the person receiving it. I don't mind subjecting myself to ads, but I don't want them included in greetings or thank-you notes I send to others. Also, if you are not dealing with a reputable company, there is the chance of both you and the recipient being exposed to malware, pop-up ads and spam. A greeting that causes the recipient to get unwanted e-mail isn't a nicety - it's a Trojan horse.

My wife is one of those people who likes printed cards for her birthday, Mother's Day, our anniversary and other occasions. She'd be happy with a Hallmark card but that's not my style, so I always whip something up myself that I can print out for her.

I've used greeting card software like Hallmark Card Studio or Print Shop Deluxe, but most of the time I create something using Microsoft Word. I often include a personal photo, such as a shot of our kids for Mother's Day or a picture of the two of us for our anniversary, along with appropriate text. And I sign it the old fashioned way - not via the printer. Microsoft Word, which many people already have, has templates for a wide variety of cards.

Facebook has created a new birthday etiquette. By default, the service will inform users that their friends are about to celebrate a birthday, and it's now customary to send a personal message on Facebook or post something to their wall. If you post to someone's wall, remember that what you say can be seen by others, so don't get too personal. And, if you're one of those people who has lots of "friends" who aren't really friends, skip the birthday greeting. I think it's gratuitous to get greetings from people you have no real connection with.

And speaking of Emily Post and manners, be careful what you post on Facebook and Twitter. I've stopped following people who tweet so often that they overwhelm me with their comments. I don't know how much is just enough but I do know that hundreds of tweets a day - yes, there are people who do that - are far too many.

When it comes to Facebook, my main concern is respecting others' privacy. Be thoughtful about photos you post that include other people. You might want to ask them first. And be considerate about what you post on your or other people's wall to make sure it's appropriate. I sometimes delete comments on my wall because I just don't want to be associated with someone's mean or inappropriate comment.

With all digital media, be respectful, avoid angry outbursts and be careful how you use satire or potentially inappropriate humor. What works in person or even by phone sometimes doesn't work well online because the human contact that puts things into context is often missing. And remember, anything you post or send in an e-mail or even text message can forever be copied, stored or forwarded. Something you post or send today can haunt you for years.

A lot has changed since 1922 when Emily Post wrote "Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home," but some things never change. Politeness, kindness, respect and discretion will never become obsolete.

This column originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

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