First things first: the name of the application is WhatsApp, not What’s Up or anything else.

After years of dominance of the “digital town square”, online communications are once again turning into a more individualized practice.  Privacy and consumer-driven concerns have resulted in the growth of private messaging services’ surpassing the growth of “public” social media platforms.  In countries like South Africa, it is possible to subscribe to a news outlet updates via WhatsApp.  In Brazil, businesses are advertising offers to their existing customers in a much more personalized manner via the app, and medical offices are overwhelmingly using it to make appointments and even dispense quick advice on demand.  In China, WeChat is the messaging app of choice for over one billion users.  Other countries see similar apps being used for curated content delivered directly to clients.  For individuals, these platforms present an added advantage: encryption.  WhatsApp is owned by Facebook and has currently more users than Facebook itself.  Many who are wary of displaying their personal lives on the main platform feel comfortable communicating individually – or within a group – via WhatsApp due to its stronger privacy aspects.  But the ubiquity of WhatsApp also has a downside – its ease of use means that gaffes and impropriety can instantaneously be delivered – and annoy users.  Here are a few tips for ensuring #respect and effectiveness in private messaging:


1. Profile picture

Your WhatsApp profile picture must match the image you want to display to everyone.  Remember: anyone with access to your cell phone number will have access to your WhatsApp account (until you block them).  So, making sure your photo is of good quality and shows a positive image is important!  Offensive quotes or gestures are unacceptable; revealing clothing only works if you’re a swimsuit model; pets and family members should be shown only if you (and they) are comfortable showing them to everyone.

2. Audio files

A cool WhatsApp feature is the ability to record an audio message.  Just the other day, I shared someone’s contact information (with permission) with a friend and thought she might have difficulty pronouncing the contact’s name.  So after sending the info, I recorded a quick message saying the name as it should be pronounced.  But voice messages should be used sparingly: reading a message can easily be done, but listening to one might not be, as one needs privacy to stop, hit “play” and hear what the sender said, similar to what happens during a phone call!  Selfishly recording audio messages to your contacts is lazy and disrespectful; unless you are 100% sure that the person will be able to listen to it in the time you need the message to get across, just type it!

3. Groups

WhatsApp groups are wonderful for families and teams.  Especially when people don’t live in the same location, having a group makes it easy to keep up with birthdays, personal happening and collaborate on business projects.  Nevertheless, caution is needed when creating and interacting within a WhatsApp group.  First, people should be included in a group after consenting: their contact information will be available to all group members, and they must agree to discuss the topic at hand with other members.  Second, the language and images to be used should be appropriate for that forum, with special attention required in professional groups and those including minors.  Arguments and offense caused within the group are equivalent to arguing or offending someone at a party – people are watching.  Third, just because someone is active in a group, it doesn’t mean that they should be pressured to respond to every comment immediately.  Even if all group members are in the same time zone, no one is available 24/7!

4. You do need to respond, though

If you have accepted someone as a contact or consented to being are in a WhatsApp group, you can’t ignore messages.  The timeliness of your response will depend on your availability and the level of priority of that conversation.  However, as soon as practicable you should respond.  Failing to answer a message directly sent to you is the same as leaving someone talking by themselves right in front of you.

5. Writing to your client is not the same as writing to your mom

When using WhatsApp for business, it’s not the content that will differ from what you write to personal contacts: the language and level of formality when addressing a potential client, customer service representative or patient needs to match the relationship.  If you are a customer, the same politeness you would employ towards a shop clerk applies;  if you represent a business, remember this simple rule: if you wouldn’t air kiss your client or send them flowers in real life, don’t use an emoji with those images.  Just because it’s easy to, doesn’t mean you should.  When communicating within a healthcare or legal setting, extra caution is required to maintain propriety and confidentiality.

6. Grammar, punctuation and emojis, BTW

“Internet language” may be a fun and practical thing, or it may make you appear unintelligent and lazy.  If the person you are writing to knows all the abbreviations and acronyms, by all means use them, but don’t make it hard for your contacts to understand what you mean.  Correctness doesn’t have to be a burden.  If you are misusing “you’re” and “your” or saying “to” when what you really mean is “too”, you are confusing people and short-changing yourself.  Private communications are also a showcase for your poise and competence.  Punctuation. Is. Also. Very. Important.  Get it?  You wouldn’t talk like that IRL, so don’t tiring your contacts with a poorly written message.  Finally, emojis are cute and may quickly convey certain emotions, but 20 of them in a three-line text is too much!

7. Privacy is not guaranteed

Even though WhatsApp messaging uses end-to-end encryption, it is not possible to ensure your communication will remain private.  Just as it happens with email, messages exchanged through the app may be easily forwarded, and an entire conversation can be shared via a screenshot.  Remember: anything you say may be visible by others outside the conversation.  Make sure you trust your contacts and use your best judgment when typing or recording.


In any type of communication, your reputation, personal and professional relationships are at stake.  Courtesy and respect must the guiding principles of all interactions, and only when you act respectfully you will garner the desired attention to your skills, product or service.  Remember that real people are on the other end, and the impression you make on them will stay.  Moreover, when communicating on behalf of an organization, inappropriate behavior will risk the reputation of a whole company or even a profession.  Making sure you present your best self behind your phone is always good business!