The Courtesy Protocol

The Courtesy Protocol is the grammar of interaction.  Making that last statement without use of grammar might look like this:  interaction grammar statement Courtesy Protocol is the of.   You could guess at the meaning, but a paragraph written that way would be incomprehensible.  The Courtesy Protocol is an agreed upon AND practiced set of steps to facilitate communication.

When the Internet first hit general public awareness in 1994, almost every radio report or story began with the sound of two modems “handshaking” (mp3)  – first the sound of dialing and then the negotiation between the calling modem and the one receiving the call.  Contained in that exchange are elements like a billing tone so the phone company could identify the kind of call; the speed of connection requested and other elements.  Without those exchanges – before any activity targeted by the user – the connection cannot be made.

It’s the same with almost every interaction.

the phone rings:

“Hi, this is Mark.”

“Hi, Mark, how are you?”

“I’m fine. And you?”

“Fine. Thanks.”

“Got a minute?”….

You never call someone and immediately deliver your message.  First, you confirm contact with the right person, receptivity to your call and then you start into the meat of your message.

Think how chaotic life would be without that Courtesy Protocol.  You arrive at a cocktail party, walk up to someone and jump over the Protocol and start talking: “What’s up with those Padres?”

Then, because this is a party from which the Courtesy Protocol has been stripped, and the person you have approached doesn’t know anything about the Padres or even remember who you are, they just turn and walk away.

And this keeps happening to you: you’re standing listening to someone tell a great story about how they nearly drove the green at Torrey Pines South Course 15th hole and just when you’re about to find out if they did or not, they just turn and walk away.

It’s made of two parts and some would argue that Courtesy and Protocol are two different things but then that’s why the two concepts work well together.  Courtesy – the courtesies – speak of politeness, manners, respect.  Protocol – the more technical of the terms – merely describes a series of steps that could be rude or courteous.

The Courtesy Protocol represents the most often successful interaction between people and things.  There is an opposite protocol, maybe the “Rudeness Protocol”, you could apply to the party where you walk up and grab the coat lapels of your target and pose the same question.  You can imagine the results.

Think in terms of the struggle many are having with the proper interpretation of the Courtesy Protocol – both what to practice and what to expect – in the realm of email, voicemail and texting.  If you get an unsolicited contact, are you obligated by professional courtesy to respond?  Since the sender didn’t invest much in sending the message, does that reduce or remove the obligation to reply?  Does the sheer volume of potential inbound contacts change the Courtesy Protocol?

It’s an important question because we all need sales people to connect us to the products and services we would want.  We want to talk to people who can help us and we want companies to know what we think of their products.  And yet, in the last week, I’ve been “surveyed” by almost every one of the vendors I’ve interacted with.  Each one says it will take just a few minutes to complete their survey which they promise will improve what they will provide. (I took the challenge and timed everything.  I spent over an hour doing someone else’s homework!)  At what point, does Courtesy Protocol direct you to ignore them?  I don’t have an hour every week to spend on providing marketing research to my vendors.  And I wonder what kind of results they get when the only people who do respond are only the ones that have time!

It once was that if the phone rang, everyone’s expectations – including yours – would be that you would pick it up.  But that was before the flood of asynchronous communications that threaten to busy out your day.  I personally dislike voicemail because it takes so long to receive – dial the phone, find the message, listen, dispose of or save it.  And until you listen, you don’t know who called or how pressing was the contact.  And, worse, people abdicate their communication responsibility by leaving long, unorganized messages with the critical information – like a date or phone number to the very end. Fortunately, technology often delivers both new problems and new answers.  I use a product called YouMail on my iPhone that translates the voicemail to text and sends me an email and a text.  First, that makes the voicemails easy to scan quickly and it also makes them searchable.

Are you obligated to answer the phone when it rings?  Are you obligated to return a call or an email or a text message when you get them?

As our ability to generate data increases, the pressure to convert that into information goes up else we threaten ourselves with a life – communal and solitary – overwhelmed with noise.  Just as noise on a  Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) call can cause the modem negotiation to fail, millions of blog entries all ranked with same importance, a flood of unsolicited phone calls, voicemails, emails and text messages can turn a useful communications device into an instrument of torture.  So enters The Courtesy Protocol.

Should you return unsolicited phone calls, text messages and emails?

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