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On Netiquette: A Guide to Effective Email, Part II

March 2005

Netiquette: Using technology effectively to communicate with others both personally and professionally with knowledge, understanding and courtesy.

The first and often last thing I do every day at work is check my email. This morning, I had 20 messages waiting for me. Even with filters installed to screen out “junk” mail, there were only two messages that contained content of any real importance. Email is absolutely essential for effective networking, but can also be a real burden and distraction. It intrudes on my workday and focus (what is it about email that demands an "immediate" reply?). It interferes with vacation (do I check my email everyday or do I wait until I return and deal with the trauma of going through hundreds of messages?).

Don't get me wrong. I believe in email. I love email. Email is cheap, fast, easy to do, less intrusive than a phone call and doesn't require getting out of a chair to send a fax. It allows me to easily contact people in far-off places and time zones. However, the explosion in the use of email has resulted in abuse and misuse. In addition to being overwhelmed with marginally worthwhile messages and becoming involved in long, complicated correspondences, other common problems I've encountered include being the recipient of an impulsive, emotionally abusive email, receiving an email that I was not meant to see and accidentally sending a message to the wrong person.

While email does require you to adjust your communication style, this doesn’t mean that the traditional rules regarding common courtesy, social graces and socially acceptable behavior no longer apply. As with any type of communication, people will make all kinds of assumptions about you based on how you communicate with others online; the type of human being that you are or are not, your credibility, your professionalism or lack thereof, respect for others, even your ethics. In the next two columns, I review what it takes to use email effectively and efficiently. Like any tool, the key to getting the most out of it and to avoid being burned is to understand what it is best used for and its limitations.

An overview

Use email appropriately:

  1. Email should be used for informal correspondence as well as scholarly, scientific and clinical communications. It does not replace official forms and memos needed for record-keeping purposes including, personnel actions, organization changes, contracts and policy statements.
  2. Email does not replace face-to-face communications. Email can be a huge waste of time. The very need to wait for a response means that matters handled by email may take a day or days to resolve versus a minute or two of direct phone conversation. Email does not convey emotions nearly as well as face-to-face or even telephone conversations. It lacks vocal inflection, gesture, and a shared environment (i.e., context) that are often critical for conveying meaning and intent. Your correspondent may have difficulty telling if you are serious or kidding, happy or sad, frustrated or euphoric. Therefore, email is not a medium conducive to discussions of complex issues. Above all, avoid sarcasm!

Don’t be sloppy:
Although email is written, its speed and ease of use results in a more conversational tone than traditional paper-based communication. People just don't take the time to collect and organize their thoughts with the same care as when writing a letter. After all, the recipient can immediately respond with questions clarifying a particular point or phrase. A little editing can dramatically decrease email clutter and avoid wasting both your and your recipient's time. And, without usual audio and physical clues provided by more traditional means of communication, your use of language becomes the primary means through which a recipient judges who you are. Perhaps email does not require the formality of a written letter, but I am still appalled by the poor grammar and bad spelling. Taking time to do a simple spell/grammar check means your recipient can read your message more efficiently without the irritating distractions of misspellings and mis-used punctuation.

Keep it short and simple??
Again, email does not permit the use of any of the typical visual and verbal clues that add depth and nuance to human conversation. So, stick to the facts! If your email is more than four paragraphs long, there is a good chance that people won't read it completely, or not at all. If there is no way your email can be shortened, try to explain the gist of it at the beginning to signal interested parties that they should really read it completely, and to give others a summary of it.

Think before you send?
In other words, don't be impulsive. Have you noticed that most online discussions are composed of (often mindless) ramblings of people reacting to things they've seen, heard or read. They respond impulsively without thinking through their own agenda. "Flaming," where an upset recipient fires off an angry and rude message is the most extreme example. If someone abuses you in an email discussion, simply don't respond. Avoid sarcasm at all costs!

Reply to whom?
Take a moment before you hit the "send" button and make sure that the message is being sent to its intended recipients. Email privacy is not guaranteed. Once you send your message, you lose control over its contents. Your email message may be forwarded, printed or permanently stored by any recipient. Email can be misdirected, even when you are careful. Do not put something in an email message that you would not want read by everybody. And if you receive a message intended for someone else, let the sender know. And think once, twice three times before hitting the "reply all" button!!! Does everyone really need to know your thoughts?