People like Nick Bilton over at The New York Times Bits blog argue that norms like thank-you messages can cost more in time and efficiency than they are worth. However, such etiquette norms aren’t just about efficiency: They’re actually about building thoughtful and pro-social character.

Take my six-year-old daughter. When she looked at her new iPod Touch (a Chrismukkah gift), she saw it as a divine labor-saving device. Unlike the onerous handwritten thank-you notes she had to do for her birthday, she envisioned instead sending quick thank-you texts to friends and family. Months later, she still doesn’t understand why her parents forbid the shortcut. And she won’t. Not anytime soon….

At stake, then, is the idea that efficiency is the great equalizer. It turns every problem into a waste-reduction scenario, but its logic has a time and a place. Social relations are fundamentally hierarchical, and the primary way we acknowledge importance is through effort. Sending laconic thank-you texts to family treats them no differently than business associates.

In claiming that effort is the currency of care, I’m not suggesting that efficient communication only belongs to instrumental contexts. For example, I encourage my daughter to routinely send short texts to people who are important to her. After all, every exchange can’t be deep or premeditated. A spontaneous “hi” here and “how are you doing?” goes a long way to reminding others that they aren’t alone and remain in our thoughts. But if a grandparent didn’t text, I would consider it incredibly rude and lacking in sympathetic sentiment if my daughter issued an unspoken ultimatum — like Bilton did with his parents — of get-on-my-technology-platform or get frozen out.

Great post by Evan Selinger.