The Pandemic Guide to Proper Etiquette
When we view each other through a Zoom window, status is no longer the size of your office but the importance of your mission.
Wishing someone a “robust mindset” is like asking if your dog would like a snack.
The Wall Street Journal had some interesting advice on how to communicate during a pandemic. But the suggestions sounded a bit like greeting card crossed with a love letter. One person said he ends his emails: “I wish you vigorous health and a robust mindset.”
Maybe that works for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles Hindu religious leader. For most of us, a ‘robust mindset’ is something achieved through years of study or probably at the end of a very boozy evening. The message is obvious. The sender wants credit for sounding original.
You may as well ask if your dog is in the mood for a snack.
In a pandemic, as Albert Einstein advised, make communication simpler, but not simple. Here are six rules that could help you negotiate the narrow path between sensible and sentimental:
- CCs are out. In an era driven by Zoom, the tendency to include mobs of people is redundant. Who wants to read your tired, summarizing prose anyway? They only want the facts, as the line goes. Oversharing creates a deluge and leads to more Zoom calls. Better to appoint task leaders with “the privilege but not the obligation” to resend emails to those who need them. If they can’t perform this simple duty, you have the wrong leader.
- Curiosity beats concern. As the WSJ noted, “hope you are well” is so 2019 now. But when you replace it with “I wish you vigorous health and a robust mindset,” that’s pouring old wine into new skins. Instead, try General David Petreaus’ approach when he looked at how the Iraq War would turn out. He asked, “Tell me how this ends?” Wouldn’t that be a better way to finish an email than have a robust mindset?
- Sentimentality is over. The article also suggested mixing in more of your personal issues, but I’m not sure turning work emails into blogs is a great idea. If the person you are writing is asking if you sent in your report, telling her about your son’s Zoom party seems like a non sequitur. And then, is she obligated to send a gift?
- Status Reset. The main shift in behavior won’t be social distancing, but “status reset.” In the past, we perceived importance through status because your office was next door to the CEO or you had a window view. But when our persona is a tiny box on Zoom, presentation matters more than prestige.
- Powershift. If you walk through a public market, you will see people listening to someone ranting about some cause or other. Everyone stops if the speaker is spellbinding, and if not, they wander off. In the business world, the same dynamic was at work. When Mr. Big spoke, everyone listened. But he doesn’t seem so charismatic through a Zoom screen without the trappings of power. Now, a six-month newbie who articulates challenges in a way that thas people shaking their heads “yes” gets center stage, and we may want her to lead the team.
6. Parliamentary Procedure. Finally, we need new communication protocols. Contrary to popular belief, American business practice can be too polite and overly sensitive. It means real decisions get made after the meeting by senior staffers and behind closed doors. But now, as there are no doors, it’s time we stopped worrying about hurting someone’s feelings. We have to deliberate at a new level, where everyone has an equal vote. If you are so inclined, watch the Parliament channel. MPs advocate positions, face ridicule, and status is determined by how well they defend a proposal. In time, we will behave like those honorable MPs who have been at it since April 29, 1707.
The changes in business communications are likely to be useful and productive, at least once we stop wishing people a robust mindset.