Sunday, January 24, 1999

Guidelines needed for e-mail users


A colleague recently asked me if I had guidelines for e-mail. His brother had declared that e-mail was designed for fast communication -- emphasis on fast. "D", in making his request, stated his opinion, one I share, that the emphasis should be on communication. D's hope was that I had something in print that would give his opinion clout. His greater hope was to stop his brother from sending out grammatically incorrect notes filled with spelling errors.

I've since been asked by others for similar guidelines. These requests usually follow a period of escalating workplace tension, resulting not from simple grammatical errors but from some form of e-mail abuse.

I've looked at a number of sources to find concise guidelines. Among the best I've seen is the town of Blacksburg's "E-mail Etiquette," from the July 1997 "Talk of the Town" newsletter. Though I've shortened it a bit , it serves as a good basis for guiding any organization to better communication -- and reduced tension.

Here are the tips:

Subject line. Always include a subject line in your message and make it meaningful. The recipients will know, at a glance, what's coming and will be able to recognize the message in the future if they save it for any period of time.

Uppercase. Don't type your message in all uppercase. It's difficult to read; worse, it signifies you're screaming at someone.

Grammar and spelling. Poorly worded, misspelled messages are hard to read and can be very confusing. Use correct grammar and spelling. It reflects well on your professional skills.

Flames. Don't send messages in anger. Messages sent in anger always make bad situations worse and they're usually regretted later. Repairing damage will take time you don't have. If you're upset, give yourself cooling off time. Try reading your message out loud in an upset voice (that's how it will be read). Or, try another form of communication -- one less easy to misinterpret.

Replies. When replying, include enough of the original message to provide the reader with context, but don't resend the entire original message. You want context, not overload.

Signatures. Use a signature at the bottom of your message. Make sure it identifies who you are and alternative means of contacting you ( by phone, for example).

Manners. When asking for something, say "please." If someone does something for you, say "thank you." It's astonishing how many people, polite in everyday life, forget manners in their e-mail.

Expectations. That you don't get an answer in 10 minutes doesn't mean you're being ignored.

Jokes and emotions. When making jokes or trying to convey emotions, use a smiley or type out something like . This helps ensure that the person reading your mail interprets you r message correctly.

Broadcasting. These messages, sent to many at the same time, should be reserved for special events.

I've only a few additions to these guidelines. They are:

Non-discriminatory practices. Never forward jokes that have any element of a discriminatory tone toward a particular group (race, age, religion, gender, etc.) or an element of sexual harassment.

Blind copies or blind forwarding. They are almost always discovered, and they always damage working relationships.

Forwarding "warm, fuzzy" e-mail. If you receive a much-forwarded, feel-good e-mail and you, too, want to forward it, delete all addresses included in the original. Forward the message only. Your recipients will have an easier time reading your message.

Unintentional flame wars. More difficult than intentional flame wars is the unintentionally started war. Being considerate takes a little effort but minimizes the possibilities of damaging good working relationships.

Undelivered mail. As much as 20 percent of e-mail goes undelivered. If your message is crucial, double check to make sure it was received.

It is the case, unfortunately, that many organizational policies and guidelines are written to address only those very few individuals causing the problem -- managing by exception. However, given that so many seem affected by those few, it appears that most organizations and employees would benefit from e-mail guidelines. Until we're all working with the understanding that better e-mail is a form of better communication, e-mail will continue to be the most misread form of communication. To paraphrase James Lucas, author of "Fatal Illusions: Shredding a Dozen Unrealities That Can Keep Your Organization From Success":

Faster isn't better. Better is better.

CAMILLE WRIGHT MILLER, PhD, is a consultant on workplace issues and problems for companies in Western Virginia. She can be reached at 981-3100, ext. 498, by e-mail at, by fax at 981-3346, or in care of The Roanoke Times Business News Department, P.O. Box 2491, Roanoke, Va. 24010. Please give your name and phone number in case she has questions.

Last updated 99/03/29
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