Email Etiquette for Newbies and Netizens

"There are four ways, and only four ways, in which we have contact with the world.
We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts:
What we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it."
– Dale Carnegie

The latest and greatest challenge to workplace communications comes in the form of email. Love it or hate it, most of us are using email and yet don’t really know the rules of engagement. Whether you’re a Newbie (often used derogatorily to describe an inexperienced Internet user who acts rudely and takes little time to learn the rules) or a Netizen (a user who is aware of the culture and the rules governing the Internet), it is important to know how to use email to present your best personal and professional self.

So what would Emily Post (American authority on etiquette, 1873-1960) have to say about the way we interact online? There is a whole body of ‘netiquette’ that provides significant guidance. In the workplace, this netiquette begins by adopting and following email use policies for the organization. Guidelines for employees and volunteers are essential for three reasons:

Professionalism – to convey a professional image to both external and internal audiences.

Efficiency – to ensure that communication gets and sticks to the point

Protection – email correspondence is risky business from a liability perspective, and awareness of risks and adherence to well thought-out policies protect everyone, including the organization.

Policies should reflect the formality (or less formal style) of the organization, need to be in writing and distributed to all personnel who use the email system. Training in procedures and system use help to ensure that everyone fully understands the importance of email etiquette. And finally, implementation of the rules can be monitored via email management software and email response tools.

Email usage policies likely will range from the legalities to the niceties. For those who work in offices without the benefit of email guidelines – or for those attempting to draft practices and procedures – consider this list of basics:

1. Make email personal. It should be personally addressed and should include customized content.

2. Think about and re-read the message prior to hitting Send. Make sure that the content is relevant to the recipient(s).

3. Use short sentences, short paragraphs and blank lines between each paragraph for ease of reading. Use active, rather than passive language and keep it gender neutral.

4. Don't over-use punctuation, such as exclamation marks. Use emphasis when useful to do so. If the system doesn't allow for bold or italics, a common convention is to use a *star* on either side of a stressed word.

5. Don't leave out the message thread. In other words, use Reply rather than New Mail to include a copy of the original message in the reply. A threadless email may not provide enough information for the recipient who receives a lot of email, leading to frustration in crafting a proper response.

6. Do not type in all capital letters. It is considered yelling/screaming, is perceived as lazy and inconsiderate, is more difficult and takes longer to read. (This does not apply to those who are visually impaired or are physically unable to use the shift key.)

7. Refrain from using colored text and background colors/images, which can be impossible to read and may require conversion to plain text for the recipient to respond. Rich Text and HTML formats also can be difficult for recipients.

8. Always fill in the Subject: field with a brief description of the content of the email. Avoid using Subject: messages written using all capital or all lower case letters, terms such as Hi, Help or Please Respond, or the recipient's name, as this correspondence may be misidentified as spam and thus deleted.

9. Do not overuse the High Priority, Urgent and Important functions.

10. Include a brief signature on email messages to help the recipient identify the source, especially when dealing with someone new. Don't use an over-elaborate signature that uses a lot of Inbox space.

11. Inform the recipient of the format of any attachments sent that are not basic Microsoft Office file types. Minimize, compress or "zip" large files (more than 200K) before attaching to and sending via email. Large documents, those with lots of graphics or photo files quickly fill the recipient’s email Inbox and cause other mail to bounce. Do not send unannounced large attachments – always ask first, and do so only during business hours at a prearranged time.

12. Try not to use the CC: field unless it will be clear to the recipient as to why s/he is receiving a copy of the message. It can cause confusion among recipients as to who is supposed to act on the message.

13. When sending a message to a group of people, list all recipient addresses in the BCC: field. These messages provide the recipient a copy of the message while his/her email address remains invisible and protected from the view of other recipients.

14. Do not use Return Receipt Requested for every email sent. This is both annoying and intrusive; the recipient should have the privacy to determine when/if s/he wants to open, read and reply.

15. Respond to email swiftly, answer all questions and pre-empt further questions. Be concise and to the point, using proper spelling, grammar and punctuation. Take care with abbreviations and emoticons. Remember that the Reply To All is a very dangerous button.

16. Create templates for frequently-used responses. When the same inquiry comes in again and again - such as directions to the office or instructions for subscribing to the organization’s newsletter – draft the response text and save as a template, then paste into email responses as needed.

17. Be polite. Don't criticize people's spelling – it is considered petty, and many have no way to run a spell check on email.

18. When receiving a nasty message via email, do not respond immediately (if at all). While care must be taken in sending email, it also must be used when receiving and reading messages that aren’t delivered with the vocal tones, facial expressions and body language that are so important to human communication. For the same reason, sparingly use humor and irony.

19. Do not ask to recall a message.

20. Do not keep email on the server any longer than necessary, particularly those messages with large attachments.

21. Remember that email is surprisingly permanent, although most people give little thought to the contents of a message that may linger around an organization for several years. It often is the normal, day-to-day messaging and its offhand and unguarded remarks, thoughtless and careless wording that causes the most problems.

22. Keep in mind that private email is considered to be copyrighted by the original sender. When posting private email to a public list or board, or forwarding it to an outside party in whole or in part, one must have the author's permission.

23. Do not send any of the following: virus warnings (often hoaxes), jokes, chain letters, ‘make money fast’ messages, anything of a sexual nature, meaningless or trivial material, messages containing libelous, defamatory, offensive, racist or obscene remarks.

24. Do not use email to discuss confidential information. Do not conduct arguments in cyber public, and don’t ‘flame’ people by sending abusive email messages or making personal remarks about third parties.

25. Never provide personal contact information or phone numbers when communicating with an party not yet confirmed as reputable. Never give out the personal contact information of others without specific permission to do so.

26. Don't reply to spam, which confirms that the email address is 'live' and then generates even more spam.

27. Be patient, especially with Newbies, and give people the benefit of the doubt in their adherence to email etiquette.

28. Understand that we all are on a continual learning curve in the ever-changing world of email communication.

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