Silicon Valley Etiquette
Romain Serman

This is really engaging and relevant and I would like to incorporate it into my ‘Intercultural Communication’ curriculum. Excellent survey and thorough as well. Thank you.

One comment, however, about Rule #2, regarding a ‘same-day’ response to an e-mail. There are more than a few instances when an issue of critical importance, requiring deep consideration or consultation with others, is advisable before responding. A hasty ‘just-in-time’ email to a correspondent might well result in unintended ambiguity, an incomplete response or even a misunderstanding.

What if the conditions of a job offer contain benefits that should be discussed and considered at length? Moving cross-country, an inferior health-care package, giving up a private office for a cube farm cubicle, collaborating with a group of male Mormon co-workers when you are a confirmed feminist and atheist (for example).

What I suggest to my own students is to shoot back a same-day reply stating something like ‘Thank you for your communication regarding the issue of repeated delays in deliveries, and your organization’s need for a more reliable delivery protocol. I acknowledge your concerns and promise to reply to them, point by point and in detail, within 72 hours, once I have consulted with a number of personnel on our side whose duties are relevant to this issue.’

There. You have followed the ‘same-day reply’ rule but you have not committed yourself hurriedly to a decision or commitment that you might regret, or cannot follow through on, down the road.

Another reason to stall on sending an important e-mail is to allow you time to draft it, and this cannot be overemphasized. Taking up a quill pen and dipping it into your inkpot with your right hand while you snort a pinch of snuff with your left (taking pains to avoid besmirching your lace cuffs) allows you to look at what you are writing and consider it. Emails, on the other hand, are quick and easy and thus encourage carelessness. Is there any possible ambiguity in what you write that might bewilder a hurried reader? Are you concise, thorough and polite? Few writers — even professionals — produce perfect first drafts. You might even want to show your initial e-mail draft to a colleague, and ask for his feedback. All this takes time. If an e-mail contains vital information, instructions or requests, it should be created with care -particularly in terms of structure. Second-language learners often do not appreciate how misspelled words or errors in grammar or usage can invalidate a message and arouse disdain on the part of a reader. Your communication is your ‘face’ to a counterpart, and your command of the English language an aspect of your talent, even if your position does not require perfect communications skills.

The response-to-indicate-a-delayed-response can also serve as a polite tactic in negotiations. Say you are proffered an offer of compensation 20% below what you were aiming for, a figure which you have determined is an industry average. Rather than flatly turning down the offer you ask for a brief period to consider it, signaling to the recruiter that you are not desperate enough to take what she offered but are considering it carefully — indicating reluctance. Such a response could potentially backfire on you but there are situations where stalling or drawing out an exchange can be an effective lever in negotiations.

Ask any Japanese businessman in a large corporation, when he brings in fresh faces to a meeting and asks you to start your pitch all over again (knowing full well that your plane will wing its way across the waves in five hours). The Japanese are past masters at stalling and niggling and grinding you down; it’s a tactic you come to appreciate.