When I was a kid communicating with the outside world was pretty simple.
If a letter came through the door, you wrote a response within the week (if you were polite) on your best notepaper and walked it round to the local Post Office. Phone calls came through that big plastic thing attached to the wall, the one with the dial, and if you were expecting a call then you stayed at home until it rang (although this was torture for teenagers waiting for boys to call, especially if your dad insisted on hovering by the stairs to ensure nothing smutty was being said). Once you left the house you were unreachable unless you chose to drop a shiny ten pence piece into the feed slot of a public telephone. If you dropped round to someone's house and they weren't home, you scribbled a note and pushed it through the letterbox.
See? Easy. A limited number of options.
These days, it's so much more complicated. Email, mobile, SMS, Facebook, Twitter and a variety of other ways for people to track you down. And as the options for communication widen, the pitfalls increase.
I was recently out with a friend of mine who told me that she's just been 'de-friended' by a mutual acquaintance on Facebook. They weren't especially great off-line friends, these two, but they had seen each other on a social basis fairly frequently over the past year or so. My de-friended friend was bemused - what had she done to offend this other woman? She didn't have a clue. And the worst thing was she felt completely unable to find out and try to make amends; by de-friending my friend, the perpetrator had effectively cut off all straightforward avenues of communication - the internet version of the 'cold snub', if you like.
Now my friend is fretting about what happens when she next sees this woman in a real-life social situation - should she bring up the de-friending incident and ask what she'd done to deserve it? Or should she just smile politely and pretend it never happened? After all, this woman was really only the online equivalent of someone you bump into at the local pub or the supermarket and feel obliged to have a two-minute chat with out of politeness.
It's not only Facebook and similar social networking sites which pose a modern-day social minefield; email and text are also dangerous territories. Many are those who have emailed or texted in haste and repented at leisure; unlike in conversation, once a word is written and misconstrued there isn't always a lot of room in which to backtrack or explain what you really meant. Plus those of a sensitive nature can always go back to the offending message and allow themselves to feel affronted all over again.
Then there's the whole timing issue. What is the polite length of time before you need to respond to an email or text message to avoid causing offence? Since Emily Post is no longer around to offer expert advice on the matter, I had to rely upon a straw poll of friends as an indicator of popular opinion. The overwhelming majority agree that a text should be responded to with an hour or two, a personal email should ideally be answered within 48 hours (eek!) and business emails need to be dealt with within 24 hours - unless of course it's marked urgent or from your boss or a key client, at which point you jump as high as required.
Sadly, the excuse that your message must have got lost in the post just doesn't wash these days...
Finally, how often do you need to pay attention to your friends' Facebook status updates? Should a 'real' friend take care to acknowledge the status updates of their closest mates (who just happen to also be on Facebook) all the time in order to make them feel cared for? My personal rule is to comment on all important life events (births, deaths, divorce, new job, moving house, etc) and to 'like' any updates that I find especially amusing; after all, there's only so many times you can like the fact that someone is pissed enough to 'check in' to their local watering hole and post a blurry picture of themselves holding up a gigantic cocktail (hands up, I've been guilty of numerous alcohol-fuelled check-ins myself, so I totally understand the inclination).
*sigh* As if (real) life wasn't difficult enough...