6 Jul 2022

Courteous Communication in the Digital Age

We have so many digital ways of communicating – texts, emails, message boards, chats – that it can sometimes feel that face-to-face communications are coming a poor second. But it’s important that we take a step back and really determine when it is appropriate to say things face to face, and also acknowledge that on some occasions a handwritten note is the best option.

Digital communication is wonderfully convenient, but it is a blunt instrument. We sprinkle our texts with emojis in an attempt to add layers of complexity and meaning to our words, but – when the subtlety and nuance of in-person communication is lost – there is always a risk of misinterpretation.

The very ease of digital communication is also a danger, as it means that spur of the moment thoughts are immediately transmissible, and dangerous and provocative messages can be conveyed at a touch of the ‘send’ button. Late night drunkenness, maudlin emotions and 4am blues are all real hazards, and many messages that should never have been sent find their unerring way to unsuspecting recipients, detonating a storm of hurt and recrimination.

Some would argue that emails are a different matter. They can be treated as digital letters, long mulled over, and only sent after much deliberation. However, the moderating impact of pen and paper (not to mention finding envelopes, buying stamps and walking to the post box) is sorely missed, and many of us, who spend our working days churning out countless emails, are liable to revert to the ill-considered, impetuous send mode, precipitately dispatching our missives before we’ve had a chance to review them and assess their potential to do harm.

We all need to think carefully about the ways in which we choose to communicate. As a general rule, momentous life events, whether positive or negative, should be properly marked. Even in this digital age, a handwritten note to send condolences on a death, or congratulations on the birth of a child or a new job, will have much more impact and meaning than a short text or email. The effort that has been taken is commensurate with the importance of the occasion.

We should never hide behind written communications when circumstances demand a face-to-face discussion and explanation, which is simply cowardice. If you are ending a relationship or sacking an employee you need to concede that the emotional and practical reverberations of your decision must be acknowledged and, if at all possible, mitigated. You must express heartfelt regret and, if need be, compassion. You must have the bravery to stand by your decision, even when feeling overwrought. Sending this kind of bad news in writing will inevitably lead to terrible recriminations and heartache.

Debrett’s Communication Recommendations:


•Births, engagements: a well-chosen card with a short message (not just a signature) will convey an appropriate note of celebration.

•Deaths: a hand-written letter should be sent promptly, which should contain fond recollections of the deceased person, as well as offers of help and support.

• A new job: it’s always a kind gesture to send a card with a short message of good wishes, especially when it is a young person who is just starting on their career.

• Thanks: It’s fine to send a text or email when you’re thanking hosts for everyday hospitality, but on bigger occasions, such as weddings or overnight stays, it is a pleasing gesture to send a handwritten note of thanks.

• Thank yous for presents: a text message is too cursory an acknowledgment of the trouble that has been taken to purchase and wrap a gift. A short note of thanks will be much more appreciated


• News of redundancy. Mass redundancies, announced by email, have been much in the news lately. News of dismissal or redundancy should be never be conveyed en masse, which cruelly devalues the impact on each individual. The news should be communicated in person, and only by note or letter (never by email or phone) if it is absolutely impossible to find somebody to deliver the news. It’s bad manners to give someone notice of their imminent departure in this surreptitious way, and dismissing someone in person means that you can verify that they have fully understood what has happened and why.

• Telling your spouse that you are seeking a divorce. This is a life-changing decision and, while it might not come as news to your partner and may well be the culmination of much discussion and counselling, it may still be devastating or distressing. Announcing a divorce by email is both cruel and cowardly; it does not give the recipient of the news any forum for discussion, does not allow you to show compassion for the emotional impact, and makes no provision for discussing next steps and the way forward.

• Ending a relationship. While the ramifications and fallout might not rival the complexity of a divorce, it is still extremely lily-livered and shoddy to hide behind the protection of a text or letter. You should be able to look you soon-to-be-ex-partner in the eye and offer an honest explanation.


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