Dear Abby can only get you so far — right up to the 20th century or so. But when it comes to questions about manners in the modern world, that’s the specialty of Philip Galanes, who writes the popular “Social Q’s” advice column in the Sunday New York Times.
Galanes’ new book, Social Q’s: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today, is a compendium of helpful guidance that the columnist has doled out to Times readers over the last several years. He’s got tips for all kinds of social situations, but especially for those that involve our virtual lives. “A tremendous number of my questions come from people who are just trying to navigate the digital world without doing anything so egregious that they end up on Inside Edition,” Galanes told TIME.
I spoke (politely!) with the New York City author about a few high-tech dilemmas of my own.
TIME: Some close friends of mine have Crackberry Syndrome. You know, where every meal involves having the Blackberry on the table or even reading it under the table.
Philip Galanes: Admission: I’m like that too, and a number of people that I know are getting to be more and more like this. It’s a real problem. The number of actual work or family emergencies that come up in any year is probably like what, two? So how to explain the fact that every single day we’re looking at this thing like it is our magic eight ball telling us our future? It’s very hard. I counsel baby steps. Turn it off for 15 minutes. ‘Wow, we got through these 15 minutes.’ Turn it back on. Then turn if off for 30 minutes. My partner and I often have full weekends where the Crackberry is turned off. I’ll tell you, however bad [your friends] were, I promise you I was three times worse.
TIME: That’s great. So you cured yourself!
P.G.: Well, I don’t know. It’s the language of addiction. I’m in recovery.
TIME: This is something I’ve been wondering for a long time: Is it kosher to send a thank-you note by email?
P.G.: For every 400 letters I get that are furious that there’s been no thank-you note at all, I get one saying, ‘Isn’t it annoying that my thank-you note came by email?’ So the bigger problem by far is that people are not sending thank you notes, period.
The good news for me and people like me is that we’re getting older and so the number of people we have to thank, who are younger than we are and might be annoyed by an email, is growing smaller every day.
TIME: Another universal question: Is it better to friend everybody on Facebook who asks you? Or is it a horrible slight to ignore somebody who wants to be friends?
P.G.: At the very beginning I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to keep Facebook as a special haven for my very closest friends.’ But it was silly. Because a second cousin that I wasn’t so crazy about asked. Why am I going to hurt her feelings? Or some boy that I knew in junior high. I mean if you look at the quality of the interactions that are going on on Facebook now, and in my world that mostly involves some sharing of interesting news links, some snarky comments about celebrity culture, some lightweight gossip, why not say yes to everyone? A digital rejection hurts just as much as one that happens on the street corner, and if it’s possible not to hurt somebody’s feelings, why not?
TIME: Don’t you think there’s a problem these days with iPod obliviousness, where everybody is always standing in your way because they can’t hear you say, ‘Excuse me’?
P.G.: Absolutely. I can remember the Sony Walkman. I can remember the first time I had one on. I felt like all of a sudden my life had a soundtrack, and I loved it so much to be marching down Fifth Avenue and feeling like, ‘Yes! My life is like a movie.’ But in fact, over time I saw that it was robbing me of so many more interesting things. I wasn’t overhearing interesting conversations on the street. I wasn’t hearing the older couple saying, ‘Excuse me,’ and getting scared, as I was about to barrel them down. The more liberating this technology is, the more insulating it is, too, because all of a sudden you’re in a chamber of one, and it might be you and Mary J. Blige, your favorite singer, but it creates too small a world.
TIME: Are emoticons ever appropriate in business messages or should they be reserved for personal email?
P.G.: Before the Internet exploded and we were on the phone with our colleagues and when we were occasionally sitting in their offices, we had all kinds of human interactions with them. So I understand the emoticon as a kind of human attempt to re-inject a facial expression and a tone of voice into our exchanges with them. Still, when it’s with your boss, I think you end of looking more like a 12-year-old girl than you probably ever want to.
TIME: What do you do if you’re online dating and you suspect someone is lying to you?
P.G.: My best advice to online daters who are really serious about online dating is to go off the computer as quickly as possible. And I don’t mean go meet them the minute that you establish contact with them. I mean, get on the phone with them. Because in the experience of the letters that I receive, a reluctance to stop typing and to actually pick up the phone usually signals some kind of unavailability that the sincere dater should be really aware of.
TIME: What about when somebody is obnoxiously talking on a cell phone near you, on a bus or on an elevator? Is there anything you can do?
P.G.: Oh, I absolutely think there is. Lead with a smile, because the smile says, ‘I come in peace.’ Just say, ‘Could you bring that down a notch?’ and leave it at that. No smart aleck-y remark, because a smart aleck-y remark to a stranger always comes off meaner than you ever meant it to. So just a smile and a request, and again, I find in the vast majority of cases the person who is yakking it up will 100% go along with you. Now, on the occasions when they do not? There is, I guess, a downside of having these cell phones at our disposal 100% of the time. But most of the time it really works well.
TIME: What if you knew that a colleague was dialing up online porn in the office?
P.G.: I think my first step, if I had any kind of relationship with the person, would be to say, not in a judge-y way, that we have all gone to places on the Internet we wish we hadn’t or we probably shouldn’t have. I would just remind them that our companies have pretty accurate records about where we go. [We] would be really ashamed to see him or her walked out of the office with, like, a small cardboard box in her hands because she was on some unspeakable site. Not that there’s anything the matter with pornography, but from 9 to 5 there really is something the matter with pornography.