Test your e-mail etiquette

By James A. Martin, PC World Magazine – 04/30/2001 – 12:00am


Let’s begin our e-mail etiquette course with a pop quiz: Your coworker Hank has such terrible breath that it’s become a subject of office gossip. Should you send an anonymous e-mail to warn Hank, tactfully, of the problem?

If your answer is yes, you’ve violated PC World’s second rule of e-mail etiquette: Don’t use e-mail to deliver sensitive messages. But don’t be discouraged: Lots of other people’s e-mail manners are as bad or worse.

With the explosion in use of the Internet and personal computers have come massive violations of e-mail etiquette. An online survey conducted by Yahoo found that the majority of 13,000 respondents scored a C-minus in e-mail etiquette. As manners maven Letitia Baldrige recently said in a USA Today opinion piece, “E-mail is so beloved, universally accepted, and adored that I feel almost like a traitor suggesting that there is a growing trend to abuse it.” The Perils of Impoliteness

By displaying poor e-mail manners, you risk anything from minor embarrassment to unemployment. Dow Chemical recently dismissed 50 workers for circulating pornographic and other inappropriate material via e-mail. Late last year, the New York Times fired 23 employees for swapping off-color messages.

In the hopes of civilizing cyberspace, PC World has compiled a list of the ten most egregious e-mail infractions, listed in descending order of severity. We also offer advice from Miss Manners columnist Judith Martin and others on how to avoid making them.

The advice, in short, is this: The Golden Rule still applies. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. After all, wouldn’t you rather hear about your atrocious halitosis from a trusted coworker than from an anonymous e-mail?

The Worst Etiquette Offenses

Infraction 1: Sending Offensive Content

You might think a photo of Janet Reno’s head above a naked model’s torso is funny, but be careful whom you share it with. Some friends may take offense, and e-mailing it to coworkers can get you reprimanded–or even fired.

Never forget that employers have the right to monitor your e-mail, advises Amy DelPo, an attorney and editor of employment law books for legal publisher Nolo Press. What’s more, most companies tend to archive e-mail–even deleted messages. Your own messages can be used against you in court.

Advice: Don’t send anything through e-mail you wouldn’t put on a postcard. Also, don’t use your business e-mail address for personal correspondence.

Infraction 2: Using E-Mail for Sensitive Messages

These days, time is more precious than ever. E-mail is extraordinarily convenient. Put the two facts together, and the result is that many companies accept e-mail as an almost exclusive mode of communication between employees.

The problem is that e-mail messages can be misconstrued. You may have meant one thing but inadvertently implied the opposite. More importantly, e-mail is not appropriate in all situations, particularly those involving sensitive issues. “Some people have actually been fired by e-mail,” says Charles Bermant, e-mail advice columnist for the Seattle Times.

It’s particularly boorish to communicate sensitive matters anonymously. “We already know that anonymous letters are despicable,” says Miss Manners columnist Judith Martin. “In etiquette, as well as in law, hiring a hit man to do the job does not relieve you of responsibility.”

Advice: Never use e-mail to convey sensitive information, especially anonymously. Sensitive matters at work should be handled in person. If that’s not possible, the descending order of preference should be telephone, followed by voice mail, and only when all else fails, e-mail.

Infraction 3: Flaming

Some people, believe it or not, don’t deal well with anger or confrontation. In the heat of the moment, they bang out fiery (if not downright ugly) messages. Later, when they’ve regained their composure, these hotheads often regret what they wrote.

Advice: Think before you click Send. Some enterprise e-mail systems include an Unsend feature, but many don’t. “Wait 24 hours to calm down,” suggests Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies (IDG Books). “Then, read your message over again. If you still feel the same way, send it.”

Flooding In-Boxes Won’t Win Friends or Influence People

Infraction 4: Spamming and Chain E-Mail

Few people enjoy receiving unsolicited marketing e-mail, especially from friends, family, or coworkers who have something to gain by forwarding it. Likewise, avoid flooding all your friends’ in-boxes with chain messages. Example: An executive we’ll call Bob receives an unsolicited e-mail advertising a new cell phone. The message offers a price break to anyone who forwards the spam to another ten people. Bob obliges, sending the spam to ten friends. But that makes nearly all of his friends unhappy. Later, Bob discovers the cell phone offer was actually a hoax. The net result: Bob looked gullible and irritated his friends in the process.

Advice: Never send spam unless you do the following first: Ask the recipients for their permission. Check to make sure the spam is legitimate. If you subscribe to e-mail lists, and you want to reply to a specific message, reply only to the list’s broadcast address if your point is directed at the list membership at large. Otherwise, replace the membership address in the To: field of your e-mail with the address of the individual to whom you wish to reply.

Infraction 5: Getting Too Attached to Attachments

With e-mail, you can easily share photos, short videos, MP3 files, and other content simply by attaching them. But as the recent Love Bug virus outbreak demonstrated, attachments can quickly spread trouble. They can also take forever to download, perhaps tying up a friend’s only phone line. And it’s possible the recipient may never even receive the file, since some companies and individuals automatically block all incoming e-mail attachments.

Advice: Always ask for permission before sending attachments. Many e-mail systems, such as America Online’s, limit the quantity or size of attachments and could cut them off. The simple rule here is: When in doubt, leave it out.

Infraction 6: Not Bothering to Check Your Spelling and Grammar

E-mail often contains more misspellings than a third-grade book report. Some people are insulted when they receive a message containing poor spelling and grammar. And it certainly doesn’t reflect well on the writer. After all, most e-mail and word processing programs have both spelling and grammar correction built in; most people simply don’t use these features.

“It is decidedly rude to make mistakes in e-mail, because the recipient will then have difficulty reading and understanding the message,” writes etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige.

Advice: Proofread messages before sending. If your e-mail application lacks a spelling and grammar checker, write your message in a program that has it, such as Microsoft Word, then cut and paste the text into your e-mail message.

Infraction 7: Taking Too Long to Respond

Everyone knows how busy and important you are. But that doesn’t give you an excuse to ignore an e-mail.

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