A Quick E-Mail Etiquette Education
By Chelse Benham
“E-mail is a form of communication, and all communication is governed by
certain rules.” - John C. Dvorak, a world-renowned computer author and
columnist who writes the “Inside Trac”k column for PC Magazine
E-mail is the most widely used of all Internet services according to Dawn
Rosenberg McKay, a career planning guide on About.com and the author of the
article “E-mail Etiquette.” In her article, McKay quotes a recent Internet survey
that states almost 88 percent of all Internet users in the U.S. use e-mail. This
information is from a survey conducted by the UCLA Center for Communication
Policy (The UCLA Internet Report: Surveying the Digital Future. UCLA Center for
Communication Policy. 2001). According to the same survey, approximately 90
percent of those who use the Internet at work use it to access business email.
Using email and knowing proper etiquette for its use are two different issues and
failing proper etiquette can lead to miscommunications and damage business
“We offer Microsoft Outlook hands-on training about e-mail etiquette for the
University community,” said Maria Carmen Salinas, software systems specialist I
at the IT Service Desk at The University of Texas-Pan American. “We give
everyone who attends our training course a pamphlet on e-mail protocol. It
hopefully helps people avoid problems later.”
“Etiquette for Dummies” puts protocol succinctly. Getting to the heart of the
matter, Sue Fox, the author, points-out the crucial foundation of all e-mail. “One
of the main principles of Internet etiquette to remember is that you are interacting
with real people. Just because you may never meet your correspondent in
person, and just because you’re protected by the shield of your computer,
doesn’t mean that you can allow yourself to be a Dr. Jekyll in real life and a Mr.
Hyde on the Internet. Rudeness isn’t acceptable anywhere,” Fox writes.
At emailreplies.com they list three very important reasons why companies need
to implement etiquette rules among their employees and work practices:
• Professionalism: by using proper e-mail language your company will
convey a professional image.
• Efficiency: e-mails that get to the point are much more effective than
poorly worded e-mails.
• Protection from liability: employee awareness of e-mail risks will protect
your company from costly law suits.
Information about email protocol is prolific. Just plug in buzz words like “email
etiquette” in any search engine and viola! Among the plethora of Web sites
offering information on e-mail protocol, some very simple and explicit rules to
follow are provided at learnthenet.com. They are listed here:
Don't Be A Novelist - Messages should be concise and to the point.
Too Much Punctuation - Don't get caught up in grammar and punctuation,
especially excessive punctuation. You'll see lots of e-mail messages where
people put a dozen exclamation points at the end of a sentence for added
emphasis. Exclamation points (called "bangs" in computer circles) are just
another form of ending a sentence. If something is important it should be
reflected in your text, not in your punctuation.
Formatting Is Not Everything - Formatting can be everything, but not here.
Plain text is it. Period. End of sentence. Messages that have fancy fonts, colors
or whatever are asking for trouble. There are lots of e-mail clients (and some
servers) which can not handle messages in these formats. The message will
come in as utter gibberish or in the worst case, crash the client’s e-mail.
Smilies - Part of the nature of a good one-on-one conversation is the use of
visual cues. Since there are no visual or auditory cues with e-mail, users have
come up with something called "smilies". They are simple strings of characters
that are interspersed in the e-mail text to convey the writer's emotions (cues).
The most common example is :-). Turn your head to the left and you should see
a happy face (the colon are the eyes, the dash is the nose and the parentheses
is the mouth).
Salutations - The question here is "How personal is too personal?" or to be
more specific, how do you open your e-mail: "Dear Sir", "Dear Mr. Smith", "Joe"
or none of the afore-mentioned. In a non-business situation, you can bypass the
standard formalities. In the business situation, things are much more
complicated. Each situation will need to be evaluated on its own, but in general,
use the following as a guide: If you normally address a person as Miss/Mrs./Ms./
Mr. Smith then that's the way you should address them in e-mail. Signatures –
Use your name, title and email address at the end of an email because the
originator is not always clear to the recipient. It is recommended that you keep
the total number of lines for the signature down to four or less. Threads - Once
you send that first e-mail, you will probably get a response. If you want to reply to
that response what should you do? The wrong thing to do is to start a new e-mail
message. This breaks the link (called a "thread") between the original message
and your soon-to-be-created response. Without the link, it can get difficult for the
users on each end to follow the sequence of messages, especially after several
exchanges. This becomes an even larger problem when you are dealing with
newsgroups where several people may be replying to messages and trying to
follow the thread of exchanged information. The correct thing to do is to hit reply,
which is essentially the same thing as creating a new message, but maintains the
thread. No private emails - There is
no such thing as a private e-mail.
• With some e-mail systems, the e-mail administrator has the ability to read
any and all e-mail messages.
• Some companies monitor employee e-mail. The reasons for this obtrusive
behavior range from company management wanting to make sure users
are not wasting time on frivolous messages to making sure that company
secrets are not being leaked to unauthorized sources.
• E-mail software is like all software in that occasionally things go wrong. If
this happens, you may end up receiving e-mail meant for another person
or your e-mail may get sent to the wrong person. Either way, what you
thought was private is not private anymore.
• Don't send anything by e-mail that you would not want posted on the
company bulletin board. If it's safe enough for the bulletin board, it's safe
enough for e-mail.
“When students use the University’s e-mail system they need to be clean,
civilized and professional at all times. Watch your language,” said Albaro
Barrientos, electronic communications technician in the Academic Computing
Center at UTPA. “Since it is the school’s email it is being monitored.”
Flames - What is a "flame" or specifically what does it mean "to be flamed?" To
be flamed means that you've sent an e-mail to a person(s) that has caused that
person(s) to respond in many, not-so-nice words. It's basically a verbal attack in
electronic form. How do you respond to flame? This is a tough question. The best
answer would be to ignore it and go about your life as logical and rational human
being. Don’t lower yourself to the level of the “flamer.” You will find out that
responses just aren't worth the effort. Remember that old saying about "You can
please some of the people...".
If you do choose to respond you will probably end up in what is known as a
"flame war". This is where two or more people end up exchanging flames for an
extended period of time, usually to the point that users start making references to
one's mother, one's mental capability, etc.
Never been flamed? Well if you are begging for it, do one or all of the following:
• Send an e-mail in all UPPER-CASE. Use of upper-case words is the
equivalent of shouting in some one's ear. ONLY use upper-case words
when trying to make a point. Even at that, you should be careful with
whom you are exchanging messages.
• Make a comment about grammar or punctuation. Nobody wants to feel
like they are exchanging e-mail with their eighth grade English teacher.
• Send a mass-mailing advertisement. This is number one on the don'ts
list and will generate more flames than the devil himself.
• Insult someone and e-mail it to others. Nobody wants to be publicly
humiliated. Sending critical and offensive e-mail is bad etiquette.
An immediate response does not always happen - E-mail is a conversation
that does not require an immediate response (like a telephone). With e-mail you
send a message and then wait for a response. The response may come in five
minutes or the response may come in five days. Either way it's not an interactive
conversation. Too many users assume that the minute someone receives an e-
mail, the person will read it. This is a bad assumption. Remember, e-mail is not
designed for immediacy (that's why you have a telephone), it's designed for
One of the most annoying and uncontrollable situations that can occur from
having an e-mail address is the onslaught of “spam,” the unsolicited receipt of
information from an Internet Web site advertising its wares.
“One of the biggest complaints we get is regarding spam from outside sources.
Those are difficult to solve,” said Lupe Gomez, assistant at the IT Service Desk
at UTPA. “We recommend that students never answer spam because, in doing
so, they, spammers are verifying the student’s email address and the student
may receive even more spam in the future.”
At emailreplies.com they have outlined some email etiquette rules. Below are just
some of the most important email etiquette rules that apply to nearly all
companies and users.
Some of the most important e-mail etiquette tips are as follows:
• don't send or forward e-mails containing libelous, defamatory, offensive,
racist or obscene remarks
• be concise and to the point
• answer all questions, and pre-empt further questions
• use proper spelling, grammar & punctuation
• make it personal - Not only should the e-mail be personally addressed, it
should also include personal i.e. customized content. For this reason auto
replies are usually not very effective.
• answer swiftly
• do not attach unnecessary files
• use proper structure & layout - Use short paragraphs and blank lines
between each paragraph. When making points, number them or mark
each point as separate to keep the overview.
• do not overuse the high priority option
• do not write in CAPITALS
• don't leave out the message thread - When you reply to an email, you
must include the original mail in your reply, in other words click 'Reply',
instead of 'New Mail.’
• read the e-mail before you send it
• take care with abbreviations and emoticons
• do not forward chain letters
• do not request delivery and read receipts
• do not copy a message or attachment without permission
• do not use e-mail to discuss confidential information
• avoid using URGENT and IMPORTANT
• keep your language gender neutral
A little etiquette can go a long way. Remember that the next time you e-mail
someone. Without the face-to-face interaction that can convey verbal and non-
verbal communication, e-mail protocol is all that’s left to avoid miscommunication
and hurt feelings.
”They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them
feel.” - Carl W. Buechner, author