Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.
Let’s talk about etiquette. Way back in the day, long before the internet came into being, I thought etiquette was about table manners: which fork to use in what situation, how to dab gently at the corner of my mouth as opposed to wiping my face in a napkin, whether or not to raise the pinky finger when drinking from a glass.
Of course etiquette is more than that, much more. Your grandma might explain it with, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Webster defines etiquette as “the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.”
For Realtors, some of that “code of polite behavior” is codified in the Code of Ethics (COE). However it’s important to understand that the Code of Ethics doesn’t cover every possible situation. Some behaviors may not violate an article of the COE, so technically, such behavior wouldn’t be seen as “unethical.”
For example, there is nothing in the COE that says “don’t be a jerk.” While I think we would all agree that being a jerk is not a good idea, you can’t file an ethics complaint against someone for acting like an ass.
That doesn’t mean that ass-like behavior is a good idea. Of course it isn’t. That’s where etiquette comes into play. Consider etiquette the general “life rules” we should all take into account as we go about our daily lives. Emily Post, who literally wrote the book on etiquette, says, “Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.”
Post was pretty smart when it came to establishing life rules. But she died in 1960, a couple of decades before the internet entered, took over and consumed our lives. She couldn’t pen the rules of digital etiquette.
Turns out digital etiquette isn’t all that different from real life etiquette.
The internet never forgets
Before we delve into “netiquette,” it is critically important to understand that the internet never forgets. That can be good, and bad.
If you’re at a dinner party and you pick up the wrong fork to eat your salad, few people will notice, and odds are good no one will even remember it by the time dessert rolls around.
Etiquette transgressions on the internet however, are a different story. The internet adds permanence and amplification to everything you say and do. Hit “publish” on a blog post and what you just sent into the world is now findable for all eternity. That you can sit in your bed and publish something on the internet that can literally be read by anyone in the world 24 hours a day for the rest of time is remarkable, and frightening.
Those innocuous statements, jokes, memes, videos — all those silly things posted countless times a day that are never intended to be taken seriously can in fact do significant damage. The internet is littered with countless examples of how fast things can go wrong. That off-color comment in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s tragic death for example, results in getting yourself fired. Posting what seemed funny at the time turned out to have significant consequences.
The permanence and amplification the internet provides are reasons to pause and reflect before you publish. It’s very hard to undo mistakes, best not to make them in the first place.
Way back in 1994, technology writer Virginia Shea published the book, Netiquette, the first attempt to codify suggested behaviors for effective online interactions. Shea was the Emily Post of the digital era. It may be a quarter of a century old, which is eons in internet time, but the advice it provided still rings true. Shea gave us 24 rules; I’ve condensed that into 10 suggestions. Ten things to consider before posting that — if applied — might make your life simpler, and your communication more effective, all while keeping your online reputation intact.
The human element
Words, photos or videos that you post are read by real people, and real people deserve respect. Think before you click “send.” Ask yourself if you would be OK if someone else had written this and if you’re OK if your mom saw it. It’s simply the Golden Rule — do unto others. Do that.
If you wouldn’t do it in real life, don’t do it online
As a front-line spokesperson for Zillow, I got my fair share of abuse. For almost seven years, keyboard warriors used the facelessness of the internet to make some bold, illegal and hurtful statements. Spend a few minutes reading posts in Facebook groups, and you’ll see people saying things they would never say in person. There are videos of people doing embarrassing things. Things the internet will never forget. If you wouldn’t step on a stage and say something, then don’t say it online. It’s that simple.
Cyberspace is a big place
“It’s a whole ‘nother world out there.” How many times have you said that about the interwebs? The digital space is as big as the physical world. It’s big, full of people from all walks of life, it’s beautiful, and it’s hideous — just like the real world. There are different cultures and different expectations online, just as in real life. Learn to deal with it, exploit your strengths, and minimize your shortcomings.
Respect people’s time and bandwidth
Tech increases our efficiency, enables access to information and people, and results in tremendous amounts of data moving back and forth. What tech doesn’t give us is more time. It consumes time. Remember that, and be respectful of people’s time. Before you share an article, read past the headline. Check the date. Is the “news” you’re sharing eight years old? Don’t waste others’ time.
You know how before you go into a meeting, walk on stage, teach a class or meet a client, you run things through your head for practice, and you glance in a mirror, making sure there’s nothing stuck on your shoe or between your teeth? How you just straighten up and check yourself? Yeah, do that when you go online, too.
It’s easy to take, take, take. The internet is really about giving. And truly, the more you give, the more you receive. We live today in a sharing economy. That involves the give and take between people. As humans, we tend to gravitate toward the easy and resist the difficult. It’s easy to take; it is difficult to give. Be a giver.
Extinguish flame wars
“Flame wars” is an early internet term for what today we would call trolling. It’s interesting how the language and terms change, while the behavior remains the same. There will always be people out there who antagonize others for sport. Don’t fuel the flames; don’t feed the trolls. Sometimes, you just have to walk away. That doesn’t mean the trolls win. Quite the contrary, they want you to get wound up and engage. Don’t give them the satisfaction; walk away.
Respect people’s privacy
With seemingly unlimited access to quite personal information, it’s easy to forget sometimes that people want, and need, their privacy. That big, diverse, often unruly online world makes respecting others’ privacy more important than ever.
The perceived anonymity, the ability to hide behind a keyboard and remain somewhat removed from a situation seems to foster the growth of, well, rudeness. I don’t know how else to say it. People get rude online, far more than they do in real life. Maybe it’s because you can’t hold a door open for someone or take something off their hands. Maybe it’s because you can’t smile at them. There is one thing people could do to enhance the online experience for all: Be nice.
Watch the humor
As I research for my book on reputation management, there is one topic that recurs with alarming frequency. It’s consistently one of the most frequent, and damaging, root causes for failure. It’s humor. Humor is hard. It’s easy to misunderstand. Easy for others to get the wrong message.
There are very sad examples scattered across the internet that document failed attempts at being funny. An advertisement you think is hilarious, someone finds offensive. That funny joke or meme you post sets someone else off.
I’ve seen many interviews with agents who posted a “funny” ad and found themselves looking for a new job. It’s remarkable how many of those interviews begin with, “I just thought it was funny.”
No one wants a humorless automaton. But you have to be very, very careful when playing the humor card online.
So there’s your list of rules. Just follow them and all will be wonderful in your online world, right?
Life isn’t about following a list of rules. You know how to behave in life. You know how to act your age. Whether or not you choose to do that is a different matter. But that’s on you. Your online life is no different. You shouldn’t need a separate list of rules for how to behave online. Act like you should IRL. Behave yourself online. Remember the internet never forgets. Be happy for Pete’s sake. Don’t be an ass.
It’s really not that hard if you think about it. Get frustrated when you’re trying to communicate online? We all do; welcome to being human. Take a deep breath, walk away from the keyboard and relax. Come back, be nice, do unto others and enjoy the view.
Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty. “Retired but not dead,” Jay speaks around the world on many things real estate.