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Call? Text? Meet? What’s the Best Way to Connect? Consult Our Contact Method Index


Nov 14, 2017 | Ian S. Port

With so many ways to communicate in business — email, phone, Slack, text message, and even the good ol’ in-person sit-down — how do you know which to choose? It’s hard to know what medium best suits a given purpose. But we’re here to help. Based on the advice of a handful of business etiquette experts from the Emily Post institute and elsewhere, we’ve compiled this handy, magnificently polite guide to choosing a medium for your business communication. It begins with the most formal type of communication (and the subjects for which it’s suitable) and moves on down to, well, text messaging.

most formal

The IRL Group Meeting

You plus partners, clients, and/or prospective employees, gathered in person around a table to talk. The most formal type of business interaction short of an international summit.

Useful for

Launching new initiatives, brainstorming big ideas, closing deals, communicating vital information, and interviewing candidates. The best choice when high-level work needs to get done by more than two people, or when making decisions that require lots of input.

Not ideal for

Getting to know anyone personally or discussing close details of work or personal life. Don’t expect to be truly candid or bond with people around a long conference table, and don’t expect to sweat details with many people present. Always a danger of meandering and running long.

The Group Video Chat

Same as above, but with some or all members participating through a computer screen. May or may not be less formal than if everyone was present in person.

Useful for

Synchronizing sales pitches or work approaches over long distances; keeping abreast of what other colleagues are doing; building a rapport with a far-removed client.

Not ideal for

Intense brainstorming, since latency and technical issues can inhibit candor and interrupt the exchange of ideas. Also not an ideal way to disseminate crucial new information, since people are often distracted by their computers.

The One-on-One Meeting or Video Chat

You plus a client, employee, or prospective employee, together in an office, over a meal, or speaking via video chat. Unless you know the person well outside of work, this comes with an air of formality.

Useful for

Conversations requiring candidness and sensitivity. If you must fire someone or deliver a negative assessment of their work — or ask them for an honest assessment of others — an in-person, one-on-one conversation is the best way to do it. One-on-one meetings, even via video, are also a great way to build a rapport with a new employee or client.

Not ideal for

Building consensus among a large group of people (unless you talk to everyone individually); disseminating information to large audiences; brainstorming.

The Casual Meeting

You plus the boss/client/coworker enjoying a drink after work, chatting in the office kitchen, or going to play tennis.

Useful for

Learning about other people’s personal lives, tossing around new ideas, and speaking frankly about the processes and habits of work. Quite informal, this is a good way to bandy around crazy notions and build a bond. If you know the person well, a casual meeting can even soften the blow when issuing criticism or sharing a painful decision.

Not ideal for

Conversations of utmost seriousness or formality with those you don’t already know well. Also not a great way to give criticism or direction inside the office, since doing it in a casual manner can make you seem callous or insincere.

The Telephone Call

You pick up a phone, dial a number, and speak to someone on the other end with your voice. This is a tool of office eras past that worked well for your grandfather, and will work for you, too, with the understanding that nowadays you may need to schedule a call in advance. Formality varies directly with your familiarity to the other person.

Useful for

Coming to agreement, whether on a time to meet, a business strategy, or another issue that requires equal input from both parties. A phone call can accomplish in two minutes what would otherwise require twelve or twenty emails. Also, talking to someone on the phone is a lot like talking to someone in person — which is to say, fun! More fun, anyway, than watching your inbox swell.

Not ideal for

Getting the full sense of another human being, which is still best done in person. You probably aren’t going to make a new bestie client or friend on the phone alone, but for most conversations, it works well.

The Fax

You put a document in a machine, and another machine in a faraway place spits out a copy of that document, often on weird plasticky paper. A formal tool of office eras past that has died for good reason.

Useful for

Ordering lunch in Japan; offices that don’t have scanners.

Not ideal for

Anything else. We have email now.

The Mass Email

A written electronic message sent to a group. More formal than the individual email.

Useful for

Transmitting or announcing information that doesn’t require input, sending invitations — and also for brainstorming ideas, if meeting in person or via video is not possible.

Not ideal for

Making people feel special. Still not as good as in-person gatherings for brainstorming. And by sending mass emails, you may create the possibility of a reply-all-fueled email storm, of which you should be terrified.

The Individual Email

You send a written message and one other person gets it. Now the default choice for any business communication, and rightly so. Can be highly formal (if sent to an unknown person) or highly informal.

Useful for

Thoughtful missives, quick questions, the bulk of normal daily correspondence.

Not ideal for

Handling particularly serious or consequential issues, which is best done at in-person meetings, or, if necessary, over the phone. Not as good as the phone for scheduling or any kind of collective decision-making, since the back-and-forth will require many messages.

The Instant Message or Slack

A service like Google chat or Slack or AOL Instant Messenger that lets you type short messages to coworkers in real-time.

Useful for

Getting a quick answer to a question, making fast decisions (e.g., scheduling), discussing lunch plans, and communicating anything you might once have just spoken (or whispered) to your co-workers.

Not ideal for

Using time efficiently — as with other in-office conversations, it’s very easy to fall down a Slack hole of idle chatter. Also not great for having extended, candid conversations about serious matters, since anyone chatting online at work is also doing two or three or 15 other things at the same time.

The Text Message

A brief bubble of text sent from your phone to someone else’s.

Useful for

Telling a coworker or boss that you’re running late, and having quick, casual conversations with those you know best. While you may text people lower on the work hierarchy, be very careful before texting someone equal to or higher up than yourself, and do not ever text a client unless they have already given permission to do so. Also be aware that some people may not answer work texts outside of work hours, so an email could serve just as well.

Not ideal for

Staying out of trouble, as textspeak tends to put people at their most casual. Even if you text for work, don’t use abbreviations like “LOL” or emojis, and make sure you polish any text message to the extent you would an email. People will judge your punctuation and spelling, and you with them.

Skywriting

An airplane magically dribbles out words in the sky — out of, like, clouds or something!

Useful for

Proposing marriage to the whimsical; advertising car insurance; transmitting news of your departure from the rat race and intent to live the #vanlife, man.

Not ideal for

Requesting a raise.

least formal

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