Business Etiquette, Community Etiquette

After seeing this great instructional guide to eating sushi, I realized the only way I knew any of the rules or guidelines for sushi dining was through example. I learned that one of my examples was wrong – you’re not supposed to make a “soup” with your wasabi in your soy sauce.

Sushi Rules, Social Media Rules

These sushi instructions remind me how tough it can be to teach social media. I have had a few college professors ask me, what should I be teaching in a social media class, and how will I know if they have the lessons learned that they will need? I have been thinking about this question often.

One answer is, social media is just another tool in the toolkit to help you do your job. So, the same rules apply as in other learning situations. Yet, I think this answer is a copout. Some lessons are harder to learn than others and may be quite public and offer some humiliation. With an online community marching towards a goal, the stakes are higher than whether or not I made a wasabi soup.

In some cases, the situations are as specialized the rules of a golf foursome. Don’t talk or make excessive noise while someone else is concentrating on their swing. But golf has many more detailed rules that you learn as you practice, or rules that apply when it’s hotter than 90 degrees, such as where you can drive a golf cart. Golf insiders know these rules from years of practice and from having someone show them the rules.

So what are some of the rules we should help online community members with?

Understanding Subtleties and Helping with Guidelines

Social media and online community settings have many obvious rules, yet there is also subtlety in many online communities that insiders must explain to others. Guidelines you would find for online communities are basic for any people skill.

  • DON’T TYPE IN ALL CAPS. You sound like you’re shouting! The same sensation can occur with exclamation points!
  • Some communities will have more or less tolerance for people who sell things – be it software or services.
  • Introductions are still important in online communities.
  • Your dress and appearence may not matter as much as in-person meetings, but your online representation of yourself can either look spiffy or slobby.
  • Interruptions are also difficult to judge in an online setting, so you want to go with the normal flow of conversations that you can observe.
  • Make sure community members have the resources and connections they need to do the job. This guideline is basic business etiquette but might be more difficult in an online setting.
  • Know when to switch communication to real-time – whether it’s phone or Skype or IRC, having a good feel for when to talk synchronously is valuable.
  • Understand local cultures and norms, even when participating in a global community. Basically, be considerate of others.
  • Know when to ask questions, how much to research before asking, and figure out where questions are answered.

I know there is much, much more to business etiquette than just these guidelines. What am I missing that is essential for a student of social media to understand before approaching an online community? How should a student conduct themselves online?


  • May 18, 2010 - 7:40 am | Permalink

    You’re saying I shouldn’t mix wasabi and soy sauce in a little bowl and dip my sushi in it? But that’s my favorite part of eating sushi!!!

    Next thing I know, you’ll be telling me to give up FrameMaker and use some newfangled thing like WordPress to create documentation!


  • May 18, 2010 - 11:54 am | Permalink

    Ha! Well, I saw in other blog posts that many people questioned the authority of whoever drew the lovely instructional sheet about sushi. You can too, that’s the beauty of the Internet. 🙂

  • May 18, 2010 - 12:13 pm | Permalink

    “Supposed to” is such a funny thing. The typical Japanese way to eat sushi doesn’t call for mixing up the wasabi and soy sauce. But if it works for you, then go for it. The Japanese don’t own sushi.

    Hey, I sometimes eat burgers without the buns. Maybe if I tried that in Japan, they’d say I was doing it wrong, because that’s not how Americans do it. But being American myself, it’s my birthright to eat a burger any way I want without worrying about whether it’s right or wrong.

    Someone could probably draw a parallel between that and social media, but my birthright also allows be to leave an analogy unfinished….

    I’d say that the number one rule in social media is to watch for a while and see how things are done. Don’t jump in before checking for rocks under the surface. (You said this as “understand local cultures and norms”).

  • May 18, 2010 - 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I’ve observed that social media trends toward “less formal” than conventional business interactions, but that’s purely my anecdotal experience. (I don’t have any data on it.) But I do think that your admonition to “go with the normal flow of conversations” is spot on. I’ve seen some spectacular “commenting fails” on FaceBook a status or two. In part because, on FaceBook, a long response thread will collapse to show only a few comments. So someone comes along and comments on the initial status only, not realizing what was said in the comment list above. I guess the guidance is – listen (read) before you speak: which is good advice in any scenario.

  • May 18, 2010 - 1:29 pm | Permalink

    A piece of good advice that I see repeatedly on social-media blogs is: Whenever you approach a new community, listen for a while before you speak. Take time to get a sense of the community’s mores and folkways before you join in.

    I think this is implied in some of your points, especially the last two: understand local cultures and norms (“local” applies to an online community just as it does to another geographic location), and know the proper etiquette for asking questions.

  • May 18, 2010 - 3:40 pm | Permalink

    The more expensive the sushi, the more you should refrain from adding wasabi. Let the chef decide how much it needs to enhance the flavor of the fish. But grocery-store or fast-food sushi, you can doctor to your heart’s content.

    I would want to turn some of these principles into guidelines for behavior, especially for students. Part of the subtlety you’re talking about is how to make that translation. However, these do end up applying to life in general. For example:

    * When joining a community, introduce yourself, and say why you’re there, what you’re looking for, and what you have to offer.

    * When you’re new to a community, err on the side of listening more than you talk, and giving more than you demand, at least until you have a feeling for the culture of the community.

    * When people are talking past each other, you need to either let the issue drop, or take the discussion to a real-time channel if you really need to resolve it.

    * Don’t worry about getting the last word. If you’re right, people will figure that out, even if you didn’t get the last word.

    * Assume that people are good-intentioned until they prove otherwise.

  • May 18, 2010 - 3:58 pm | Permalink

    I really like your point about considering your online representation. While I agree with @KnowledgeBishop that social media interactions may be less formal than traditional business venues, I think you still need to consider your words carefully and keep in mind that more than your intended audience may be watching. For example, in addition to not typing in ALL CAPS and overusing exclamation points(!), I would add that you should avoid cussing and using foul language in social media. It makes you appear unprofessional and makes me much less likely to pay attention to anything else you might have to say.

    When it comes to social media I think the old adage still applies: Never say anything online you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of a newspaper. You never know who’s watching.

  • May 21, 2010 - 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Sushi is meant to be a finger food, but I still choose to use chopsticks. Worse yet, I choose to hold the nigiri with one stick while slicing it in half with the other. Call me sushially-non-etiquette. In some cultures, the use of utensils is preferred.

    As the business landscape grows globally, more tolerance between cultures will be necessary. No one culture should be able to dictate to another the correct way to respond. That said, as more cultures venture into social media, unique rules will develop organically.

    As Guns & Roses sang years ago, “all we need is a little patience.”

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