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By Dan Moren

By Request: Family Tech Support Etiquette

Subscriber Brian (hello, Brian!) asks about matters of tech support etiquette when it comes to family.

Now, first up, let’s slap a big old disclaimer on this. All of our families are different, and all of our thresholds are different. A lot of this is going to depend on your own relationships and what you feel comfortable doing, so what follows is just my own opinion and experience.

Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever turned down a tech support request from anybody in my family. That’s in large part because a) I love my family and am on generally pretty good terms with all of them and b) I like making sure that things work correctly. Here’s an example.

During my recent vacation, I spent some time at my cousin’s house. Her husband (to whom she has been married for most of my life) is a pretty tech-savvy guy and a fellow nerd, so I was puzzled when I sat down to record an episode of The Rebound and realized that the Internet was incredibly slow: around 1.5Mbps download speeds, which seemed unbelievable for a cable modem connection. He insisted everything was running through an AirPort Extreme and said he’d gotten a cable tech over to set up a new modem and connect everything within the last few months. Naturally, that immediately raised my suspicions.

Our subsequent investigation determined a few things: first, the cable modem also contained a router, which was still broadcasting its own Wi-Fi networks—that’s less than ideal when it’s about a foot from the AirPort Extreme, since it can cause a whole lot of interference. I managed to disable the Wi-Fi networks on the router, and that improved the speed to passable levels. The next complication was that the cable modem’s built-in router was handling all the network routing functions instead of the AirPort and the tech had connected the AirPort to the cable modem via the LAN port, so it wasn’t doing too much of anything.

After reconfiguring everything and making sure the AirPort was handling routing functions, we ran another speedtest on a Mac mini connected via Ethernet to the AirPort Extreme: 75Mbps down and a much more reliable upstream connection.

Now, this was certainly a case where my own self-interest intersected with helping make sure the tech was working correctly, but I’ve also spent plenty of time setting up printers, configuring iPads, and advising on purchase decisions.

I realize that this isn’t perhaps everybody’s cup of tea, and there are times when it definitely gets overwhelming. But in the end, this is less an issue of technology than one of communication. It’s important to explain your limits to those in your life who might want help with your area of expertise. There are a few ways I’d suggest of handling this:

Equipment – I know folks who have set ground rules about what platforms and equipment they will work on. I.e. “If you have a Mac, I’ll help you out, but I don’t know Windows at all.” That might work for establishing boundaries and preventing you from whiling away hours banging your head against a problem that you don’t know how to solve. Some of the tech savvy people of my acquaintaince also insist they be the one to set up any new piece of hardware in order to minimize future hassles.

Timing – Sometimes it helps to set up a particular time and date for the specific purpose of working through technology problems. For example, for Christmas last year, we got my uncle an iPad, and I made a lunch date with him to go through the basics of setting it up and using it. That way tech problems don’t end up, say, hijacking Thanksgiving dinner.

Barter – Not everybody’s comfortable asking for something in exchange for technical services, but sometimes it can help remind people that you’re using your skills for their benefit. So coming up with a way to say, “Hey, I’m happy to help you out—any chance you’d be willing to spring for some lunch?” can be helpful. Or perhaps there’s a skilled task that they can perform in kind for you.

Education – This is the ultimate goal, but it’s also in my experience the hardest sell. Not everybody is inclined to learn and some people definitely have a tougher time adapting than others. Only you know your family well enough to gauge whether this will be well received, but setting aside regular time to help teach some family members could help save you trouble down the road.

Tools – I set up remote troubleshooting tools for more than a few members of my family, depending on the technology available. This sometimes means giving myself the ability to screen share to someone’s computer, for example. (I like Screens Connect for that.) In other cases, you may consider setting restrictions on some devices so that settings can’t be altered. Again, these solutions depend on the comfort level of you and the person you’re helping.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for handling tech support for family and friends. In the end, anybody who has these skills has to decide for themselves how they want to use them and who they want to share them with.

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. His latest novel, The Nova Incident, comes out in July and is available to pre-order now, so do it!]

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