Netiquette: A Guide To Manners In The New Age

IF YOU HAD ONE WISH for the third millennium, what would it be? A cure for today's killer diseases? Five hundred channels of digital television? Abolition of the designated-hitter rule? Judith Martin has other ideas. ""I'm hopeful for the future,'' she says, ""because I assume it will be accompanied by a resurgence in the use of manners.''

Martin is better known by her nom de plume, Miss Manners--although to hear her tell it, it's more like a nom de guerre. The forces of courtesy and crudity wage a constant battle, with the advantage swinging from one side to the other. Lately the barbarian hordes have enjoyed the upper hand, says Martin, and she thinks we're ready for a return to civility. But this does not mean stepping backward to a more genteel age: politesse has to keep redefining itself, and never more so than in the current age of high-tech communications, which offer modes of insult and intrusion our ancestors never knew. This, of course, is good news for arbiters of decorum like Martin. Miss Manners has produced no fewer than eight books on etiquette, including her ""Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium.'' Some of her tips:

A cellular phone is not ""a passport into an etiquette-free zone,'' says Miss Manners. Turn it off during meetings and--please, ""gentle reader''--don't wield it at restaurant tables or other conspicuous public places. ""There is a basic rule: you don't disturb people,'' says Martin. No matter how cool you think you look.

Call waiting, another modern convenience, can furrow the brow of even the most composed manner maven. Martin despises it and disparages its promulgation of a ""last-come, first-served'' ethic. Of course, we've now become so accustomed to being able to break into others' phone conversations that a busy signal often comes across as a slap in the face. Peggy Post, great-granddaughter (by marriage) of etiquette queen Emily Post, has devised a system to minimize hurt on both sides. If you're on the phone when another caller rings, wait for the other party to acknowledge the second call and invite you to answer it.

E-mail, on the other hand, ""is the best means of communication since the Pony Express,'' says Martin. For one thing, it's demure: ""You don't have to disturb people the way you do when using a phone or fax.'' But bear in mind that e-mail is less private--and less formal--than other means of communication. Don't drop emotional bombs such as ""You're fired'' or ""I'm pregnant'' electronically. Also, ""Dear sir'' is too formal a salutation for e-mail, Martin says. She'd prefer that you use the recipient's name followed by a dash.

In most cases, an ill-mannered e-mail message will annoy only its recipient. Elsewhere in cyberspace, however, it's possible to simultaneously slight thousands of people--and it may be tempting, too, given the relative anonymity afforded by the Internet. Any attempt to achieve something approaching decorum in this vast, unregulated free-for-all is probably doomed from the start. But that has not deterred the practitioners of what is called, inevitably, netiquette (outrageous puns are a special form of bad manners, but let it pass). Arlene Rinaldi runs a Web site ( netiquette.html) devoted to helping others avoid the pitfalls she encountered when she first hit the Net in 1990. ""I made every mistake imaginable,'' she says. A few basics:

Don't type in capital letters--it's considered shouting.

When posting to a discussion group, don't ramble off the topic.

Avoid larding your Web site with large images, which can take ages to download.

Then again, we may want to think twice about getting too polite. If the next century brings back civility, a backlash may not be far behind. ""People will say, "How come we can't go back to being ourselves','' Miss Manners predicts. ""Fortunately, I won't have to be around for the turn of the 21st century.''