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David Nightingale : Internet Etiquette

The word 'etiquette' reminds me of vicarage ladies discussing which way their pinkies ought to point when holding a tea-cup, but I use the word here with respect to the problem of friends who don't, can't or won't, respond.

I don't email much, and typically my 'you have mail' box may have anything between zero and three new emails each morning. I know people who apparently receive as many as 80 a day, excluding advertising! (How such a phenomenon occurs I'm not sure. They must be very talkative.)

In the Pythagorean school 2500 years ago, silence was regarded as a moral discipline, and it has been claimed by some writers that Pythagoras' students could be sentenced to death for talking unnecessarily[ref.1]. Today, as everyone knows, we are talking on cell phones, texting, emailing, Facebook-ing, U-tubing, Twittering, MySpacing -- sometimes even at the same time as watching TV or (god help us) driving. Such communication has become a kind of national madness -- a tower of Babel[babble, Webster's, ref.2], a cacophony of stuff -- almost all of which could, I submit, be dispensed with. (I will, however, give credit to something like Twitter for coordination of things like Arab uprisings.)

But as regards those who don't, can't or won't respond, here are  just two examples out of very, very many:

A long-ago student friend – a good friend I had not heard from in many years wrote me a snail-mail letter from Scotland (albeit with an incorrect address but luckily I got it) to say he had been in contact with a mutual student friend of ours, and wanted to re-establish contact, say hi, and so on. He included his email address, and delightedly I replied. We exchanged a couple of emails, about family and so on, and didn't in any way overdo the re-contact.

About six months later I emailed him again with a question -- but there was no reply. He seemed to have disappeared. A brief email reminder again yielded no answer. But when I resorted to the (overseas) telephone he was again eager to chat -- and so I refrained from exploding and crying out 'why on earth don't you answer your something-something emails?'

My second example (although I can think of myriad such) was an email to a friend who lives only about 20 miles away whom I hadn't seen in a while, as well as a phone message – but -- no reply. She had once expressed a strong interest in seeing a unique book I had, and so I drove the 20 miles and left it on her porch. That was actually two years ago now -- no acknowledgment, none whatsoever, for my phone call, my email, OR even for the book on the porch. Nothing.

Now why would friends do this?

I believe the answer lies in the sheer quantity of communication that is now bouncing between us. We read an email, and then it disappears from the screen. It doesn't lie on the table.

Now it's one thing to disregard advertising, informational notices and so on, but between friends? A cynic might say that neither of the above two people is actually a friend any more. While that's a possibility, I discount it. In the first example I decided to email the original mutual friend of ours, a friend who always replies immediately, and mentioned that I hadn't heard from our friend in Scotland. 'Oh' he said, 'he never answers his emails.'

So, to wind up, the way I see it, there's so much material being exchanged now -- scads and scads of it -- that it seems to have become the norm not to reply. Indeed, with such a plethora  the new convenience becomes a burgeoning annoyance, which we tend now to walk away from.

One solution, unattainable of course, would be to heed Pythagoras and quieten down a bit.


1.    Huffman, Carl, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 edition), via GoodSearch.

2.    Webster's New World Dictionary, College Edition, World Publishing Company, Cleveland and NY, 1956

Dr. David Nightingale is professor emeritus of physics at The State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.