Lately, some of my most positively received posts to Twitter have involved thoughts on work-communication etiquette I have learned or refined in recent memory. I shared three last month, so I shall reprise them here.

In phone conferences, use Jeopardy! timing rules. Like the guests on the well-regarded American quiz show, when someone asks a question to which you know the answer, wait until the asker finishes before buzzing in with your response.

Yes, even if you know exactly how the rest of the question’s gonna go based on the first few familiar words. Perhaps you feel you do everyone a favor with your efficiency. I am here to tell you that from the point of view of everyone else on the call, you are just interrupting people repeatedly, and you sound like an ass. (Further, when a man pulls this on a woman, he sounds like a sexist ass, to boot.)

This behavior also runs the counter-intuitive risk of making the meeting longer — or even delaying the whole project! By shutting down the question after hearing five words and assuming you know how the subsequent thirty-seven will go, any nuance, secondary queries, or other unforeseen parts of the question will likely remain unasked. The asker will get back to work with the answer you shoved at them, and it might end up leading them down a wholly wrong path because the question they were going to ask was two degrees different than the assumed one you answered. But they didn’t know that, and you didn’t have the patience to find out, and so here you all are again on another conference call about why the project’s late.

So, yeah. Please show a little patience, on those long calls!

Favor Thank you for your patience over Sorry I’m late. The former phrasing is no less true or polite than the latter, and it shines positive reflection onto both parties at the start of the conversation, rather than negative. An overt “You display virtuous patience, and I feel grateful” versus an implied “You radiate impatience, and I regret my involvement.”

Hanon Ondricek replied to my tweet on this topic with this cartoon by Yao Xiao which compellingly argues that this principle extends generally to all sorts of social situations where a display of gratitude can prove far more buoyant than a downer apology.

Avoid Why aren’t you using [X]?. Too often I see this formulation when a sincere newcomer asks a community why their code doesn’t work, and provides the non-working code for examination.

Yes, the use of a certain facet of the language in question — let’s call it X, here — might indeed represent the best solution, and we might do the newbie a favor to educate them. But packaging your advice as “Why aren’t you using X?” basically says “I know you haven’t learned about X yet, and I want to hear you admit your ignorance.” Or, worse: “Please explain to me why your code is bad and you are dumb?” In either case, it insults the learner for having the gall to ask questions, and can discourage them from seeking any further advice (or, indeed, continuing to use the technology).

Please consider couching your advice in more positive language, instead. For example, “Have you considered using X?” encourages a hopeful reply of “No, what’s that?” rather than a helpless “I don’t know what that is!” (with an unspoken “I guess I should have already known about X before coming here, and now I feel pretty stupid”).

Note that you don’t have to type out a reply in full, especially when helping with common newbie mistakes; there’s no sin in pasting an appropriate FAQ URL at the petitioner, when available. (And if no FAQ exists to link to, well… that’s on you to fix, perhaps?)

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