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A Word From Miss Manners on Taming the Wild Web

March 03, 1997|TERRY SCHWADRON

I see the initials all the time on the Internet. IMHO for In My Humble Opinion, FAQ for Frequently Asked Questions, BTW for By the Way and all those silly sideways smiley-face derivatives. It has spurred thought about how a new medium can spawn new language, new habits, new rules of the road.

And I've found myself cheering when I see notes asking for civil discourse or chat messages that advise an overheated correspondent to chill.

I've asked myself where all this is coming from. You've heard talk about Netiquette. Who's inventing it?

So I decided to consult with an expert--Judith Martin of Washington, whose thoughts on etiquette are distributed widely under the pen name "Miss Manners." I found the telephonic visit invigorating, useful and thought-provoking.

Martin is no stranger to electronic publishing. She is an active e-mail user, and her column is available through the Internet. She has made technology a focus of her recently published book, "Miss Manners' Basic Training/Communication" (Crown Publishers, $15).

What she sees on the Internet is a rebirth of etiquette experimentation.

"Actually, I think it is wonderful to see people finally coming into the etiquette business," Martin says.

In her book, Martin reminds us that technology has given us tools to interrupt one another at will, insisting through pagers, telephones and other devices that our current concern is so important it should take precedence over whatever conversation or activity might have been going on. She endorses e-mail as a much more civilized way to communicate because it allows us to respond to each other whenever it is convenient.

"Etiquette is a civilizing idea," she suggested the other day. "Etiquette . . . seems to be a requirement for any kind of social activity. It is a means to settle misunderstandings before they become big enough to require laws."

When the Internet came along, she went on, "I was surprised that after years of being essentially patted on the head for caring about etiquette, here was an entire structure moving along in which people were insisting on civilized discourse."

So where does it all come from?

Natural instinct and survival, she suggests. At least it is survival from being offended.

"On the Internet, your reputation is not as much at stake," she said. "People can use pseudonyms or take on computer identities . . . and the law cannot settle the issue when there is upset over things that may be seen as trivialities. So there is a natural desire for what we call etiquette to settle these things."

This, she explains, is what gives rise to the negative reaction among e-mailers to "spamming." That's a healthy development, Martin said.

I found myself agreeing--politely, of course.

E-mail is a terrific way to keep in touch, much less intrusive than the telephone, whose insistent ringing forces us to stop what we are doing. The main problem with e-mail, says Miss Manners, is the overeager finger that sends first and reconsiders later.

That's not to say that e-mail doesn't have its own faults. Written letters and visits are still preferable for personal communication, she says, arguing that e-mail smacks too much of the workplace.

"There is much too much emphasis on the business world," she says. "People just seem to think that business is more important than anything else, and they allow their communication to intrude on what might be important or inappropriate social settings."

As for advice about high-tech communicating:

* Return e-mail should probably be titled as the sender's message was.

* In a business letter, there is nothing wrong with simply starting in with the text of the letter, without introduction.

* Beepers are generally a bad idea. Their presence indicates that business supersedes any other gathering. When among other people, whether at a party or in a movie theater, set them on "vibrate," so they don't alert your neighbors while alerting you.

* Call waiting is the worst of interruptions. It says the incoming call must be more important than the one already underway.

For all the talk about the supposed dangers of the Internet, what with strangers supposedly lurking to abscond with unsuspecting children and pornographers running amok, I'm finding it refreshing to think of the Net as a caldron for trying out new forms of civility.

We may argue, use foul language, even engage in sex, gaming and rock 'n' roll on the Net, but somehow we may also bequeath the idea that the medium is about connecting people, computer user to computer user.

"The Internet may be a new type of community," says Martin. "But as in all communities, there is an innate need to determine how we will keep misunderstandings from becoming too large to settle. It is good that people object so strongly when there is communication that goes out of bounds."

IMHO, she's got it right.


Terry Schwadron is deputy managing editor of The Times and oversees, the Times Web site. He can be reached via e-mail at

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