E-mail Etiquette Is Important

25 October 2001
E-mail has to be the best thing to happen to business efficiency since the telephone hit the office desk. Still, it's relatively new and people misuse it and misunderstand it in more ways than I can count. It's time to clean up your act.

While your e-mail software may require you to enter a password, you should never think of your office e-mail as private. If you're the employee, your boss can probably legally read your e-mail. If you're the boss, your information technology department can probably read your e-mail. (Guess again if you thought that you were at the top of the food chain.)

Once you hit the "Send" button, it's gone and impossible to destroy. You just never know who received a forward and what hard drive it lives on.

If you think that e-mail is ephemeral like a phone call, you're wrong. It's more like a virus that you can't cure. A court's ability to subpoena your e-mail is but one way that you may find your e-mail shared with the world. Ask Oliver North and Bill Gates, who are some of the more prominent victims of their own e-mail.

In some ways, I miss the old days when e-mail was new and the few that used it lived by some etiquette rules. Now, it seems that everybody is using it and their mothers never taught them e-mail manners.

The first rule is that sending e-mail messages in ALL CAPS is yelling. Notice that I didn't say that in a lawyer-like way, such as "ALL CAPS might be perceived, depending upon the totality of the circumstances, as speaking in a raised voice, but it depends."

What I said was that ALL CAPS is yelling, because it is. So, don't do it.

Another one that should get your e-mail privileges revoked for a week is a subject line like this: "IMPORTANT - PLEASE READ."

I don't know about you, but e-mails like this always end up being the least important e-mails I read in a day. That's because they're like a bait and switch for unimportant e-mail. If it were truly important, the subject line would read something like, "Evacuate-Kitchen Fire."

The purpose of the subject line is to briefly summarize the e-mail to help your overworked reader, who is bombarded by e-mail, prioritize the importance of your e-mail. Remember, when you were in fourth grade and you learned how to pull the "main idea" out of a story. If you wondered why you learned that, now you know: It was because your teacher knew that e-mail would be invented, and she was teaching you how to complete the subject line.

Three-day suspension should be the penalty for the hanging subject line. That's the one where the writer (I use the term loosely here) fits as much of the first sentence as he can in the subject line and then picks it up in the body of the e-mail. Obviously, this is someone who struggled with the "main idea" thing in fourth grade.

Here's the deal on saying negative things in e-mail. DON'T! (Yes, I yelled.)

First, let's look at it like a lawyer. After all, I paid lots of money for my law degree, and I was hoping to use it a bit in this column. Negative e-mail is more likely to find its way into a courtroom. The reason is as simple as this: People don't sue each other over happy things.

If you put it in writing, you're creating a record of something you may have to defend once cooler thinking prevails. The heat of the moment has a funny way of playing out in front of 12 bored jurors three years later.

Next, let's look at it from a human perspective. When you say something negative in an e-mail, your reader gets to feel bad when he receives it and every time he rereads it. Further, the written word has a way of seeming so much weightier than the spoken word.

Few people have the ability to tone down their words enough to get the equivalent impact between the spoken and written word. If you say, "That was a dumb thing to do" with an incredulous tone to a co-worker in a meeting, it's probably the equivalent of writing, "Upon reflection, you may realize that the course you chose may not have been the best."

If you think that they're not quite comparable, you're probably right. The carefully chosen written words probably still stung more than the blurted spoken ones. So, if it's negative, get up from your desk and see the person. Don't send them e-mail.

If you forget the details of this column, do yourself a favor and just remember one thought -- e-mail is forever.

Mark Grossman's "TechLaw" column appears in numerous publications. Mark Grossman has extensive experience as a speaker as well. If you would like him to speak before your group or corporate meeting, please call (305) 443-8180 for information.

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