Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Do Not Disturb: Courtesy in a Highly Connected World

My granny always said that you shouldn't call people before 9 AM or after 9 PM unless it's an emergency. With occasional exceptions--when I know people's schedules--I still try to follow her advice. However, that rule is not enough anymore. Now we have text messages and emails and Twitter/Facebook updates all of which may create notifications on our phones. And many of us keep those phones by our beds to use as alarms or just in case there is an emergency. Any form electronic update has the potential to disturb us from sleep (or our "busy getting ready" morning time or our "just want to relax" before bed time).

So does that mean you can't use ANY form of communication before 9 AM or after 9 PM? (If you immediately think that's silly you have obviously never known an early morning texter.) Of course, if you know someone is awake--for example, you are meeting for late night plans--feel free to keep in contact by whatever means makes sense, but this post is about those times when you don't know for sure and don't want to disturb anyone.

Plan ahead.
If you know a person who regularly keeps different hours than you due to work schedules, time zones, or general lifestyle, ask how he or she would prefer to be contacted and when. Perhaps someone doesn't get email updates on her phone, so you can use that at anytime without disturbing her. Or perhaps another friend doesn't mind if you wake him up. One example I know from experience: it's considerate to ask new mothers how they'd like to be contacted because you don't want to be the one who woke up baby, mommy, or both.

But sometimes you haven't planned ahead, and you want to contact someone at an odd time. Maybe you can't sleep and want to see if someone else is awake. Maybe you just got a brilliant idea that you want to share before you forget it. Because everyone's schedules and phone settings are different it is difficult to make rules that will work for everyone every time, but here are some guidelines for using electronic communication with a courtesy that will usually prevent you from waking and/or annoying your friends, family, and other contacts.

By Phone.
A phone call is still the most disruptive form of remote contact. Phone ringtones are designed specifically to get someone's attention. Also,  the recipient doesn't know the subject of a phone call unless its answered. Because of caller ID someone may know it's you calling but can't know if you are in trouble or just bored. As a result, my granny's rule about only calling between 9 in the morning and 9 in the evening still holds true. Do those times seem too conservative? You can make adjustments if you know the hours someone keeps, but be sure to allow that person adequate time for getting up and ready in the morning and winding down before bed. Someone who is always up until 11 PM still might not want to be bothered at 10:45. And if you intend to call someone at work give them at least a half an hour to get settled before calling.

Of course, emergencies are different situations, but if you aren't generally courteous with your calling times much like the "Boy who Cried Wolf" you risk annoying someone to the point that they won't pick up when you really need help.

By Text.
A text message is nice because it quickly conveys your message with little work for the recipient. Still, this is usually the second most attention-getting notification on someone's phone. A strong sleeper may be able to see a text and go back to sleep, but it's still best to limit texts to similar hours as the phone. Acceptable texting times are a bit more flexible because texts are less intrusive. A phone call can be very disruptive to someone frantically getting ready for work, but the few seconds it takes to look at a text message probably aren't as much of an issue.

By Email.
There was a time when people only accessed email from their computers which made it the ideal asynchronous communication. Late night emails might contain content you would later regret, but at least they wouldn't wake anyone up. Now many smart phones give email notifications, which makes email much like very long text messages. Although usually less disruptive than a call or text, it is still courteous to avoid sending late night emails as well. There are, however, some options if the urge to compose off-hour email strikes:

  • A lot of email software includes an option to delay the delivery date and time, which allows you to write your message now but not have it sent until a more reasonable hour. (Unfortunately, I don't know of an option to do this on any of the major web-based email sites. Anyone?)
  • You can create a manual delay by saving your message as a draft and sending it later.
  • Although it won't delay your message until a more reasonable time, Gmail users can enable "Mail Goggles" from the Labs to avoid sending content that may later be regretted. You must do some simple math problems before the message will be sent. (Even if you are always able to do the math, this at least give you a chance to change your mind after hitting send.)
By Twitter, Facebook, Google Wave, etc.
Some people do have their social media accounts audibly notify them on their smartphones, but this is far less common than the notifications for the above. This makes these alternative communications channels generally acceptable ways to send messages off hours. The only potential problem is that although some people check these accounts obsessively others can go long periods without logging in. As a result, your message may not be read in a timely manner, which may be okay if you were just thinking of someone and wanted to say "Hi."

By Chat.
The great thing about chat (formerly known as instant messaging) is that each user controls his or her availability. If a person shows availability to chat it is perfectly acceptable to contact them no matter what time it may be.

If you are the recipient of communications at unwelcome times...
If there is someone whose messages often come at undesirable times politely let him or her know. Chances are the person doesn't realize that you don't get up that early or stay up that late. Maybe he or she is the type of person who doesn't mind being woken up by a phone call so doesn't think about it as rude. Let the person know a better time or mode of communication at which to reach you. If they don't abide by your wishes try setting their custom notification to silent (and hope they don't call you in an emergency).

So, how do you feel about late night phone calls, text messages, or emails? How do you prefer to be contacted late at night/early in the morning? Do you care, or am I just overly selfish about sleep?


jalooz said...

Amen to all you have said. Another consideration, although a bit more complex, is calling during meal times. There is much more variety among people regarding meal times, but if you call someone once and they say you've caught them during a meal, make a note and don't call them at that time again.

Jessica said...

I try to turn all notifications but my ringer off at night :) saves me a lot of those annoying alerts (although if I start getting texts I just have to turn off the whole thing)

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