Sunday, April 29, 2012

Must my civility be yours?

Last fall, I received an email from a columnist inToronto who noticed that I used a column she had written as one of the online readings for a class I teach on column on and opinion writing. The columnist wrote to me to ask about the course as well as how I incorporated the readings into the course.

I didn't know the columnist, but she had taken the time to write to me with a reasonable question. It struck me that the civil thing to do was to respond. So, I responded by email. I try to respond to emails I regularly receive from readers of the column, even the angrier ones.

This raises the question, however, of whether it's wrong for the receiver of a message not to respond to someone when they reach out in a thoughtful manner whether it is by phone, conventional post, email or other avenues. Or, given the shift and breadth of communication venues over the past couple of decades, is it wrong for the sender to assume that the receiver is only civil if response is via the same communications venue?

A few weeks ago, for example, after reading an editorial that a former student wrote at a college where I used to teach, I sent him an email congratulating him on the piece and also giving him some background I believed he might find useful given the topic of his column. No response.

The silence would have made any devotee of Miss Manners boil (if boiling in itself weren't an inappropriate response). C'mon. I know that texting has replaced email as the immediate communication conduit of choice, but how hard is it to acknowledge a kind gesture put forth in an email?

Shortly after sending the email to him and having my WWMMD (What Would Miss Manners Do?) moment, I received an alert that the student columnist had started following me on my Twitter account.

If you wrote to me via email and, rather than respond to you in kind, I decided to find you on a networking site like LinkedIn to see if we could connect, would that be uncivil? Or maybe I decide to see if you're on Twitter so I can follow your posts, see if there's anything interesting, and have a way to respond to you and you to me if we have a common interest. Perhaps my choice was driven by a desire to set up a method of having an ongoing conversation rather than a one-off email.

Many people still respond directly via the same method of communication when you contact them. But given the new options that are available, that's not the only way to respond. The right thing may still be to acknowledge when someone reaches out to us, but there are many right routes that can be taken to make such acknowledgements.

My former student's decision to find me on Twitter and follow me to engage in occasional conversation was a right thing to do. Increasingly, one person's email could be another's tweet.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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