Think before you type: ins and outs of e-mail etiquette

April 7, 1997

ANN ARBOR—Goodbye, voice-mail. Hello, e-mail. The ease and speed of electronic mail is causing even the most computer illiterate to type instead of dial. But as users quickly discover, this system can pose problems for those unaware of its unique rules of style and etiquette.

“E-mail is fast and easy,” said Joseph Saul, a researcher in the University of Michigan’s Information Technology Division understand.”

Sending e-mail, unlike picking up the phone to call someone, is an entirely non-verbal experience, and can lead to communication problems. Saul says it requires extra thought in addition to some definite “do’s” and “don’ts.”

One basic issue is that with e-mail, facial expressions, eye contact and tone of voice are lost; therefore, misinterpretations are highly probable. To avoid this problem, Saul noted, the receiver should seek clarification of any confusing elements of the message by e-mailing and the sender should be as clear as possible when creating the message.

Saul also says that in cases where a misunderstanding proves hard to “clear up,” calling the other party on the phone is the best solution. “In most cases, a five minute phone call will do the trick.”

Another issue is privacy. The written word is permanent, and although a message is intended for private attention by one person, with the push of a button an electronic message can be forwarded to hundreds of people. If in fact the message is for the receiver’s eyes only, this intention should be specified within the message.

Here are some “do’s” and “don’ts,” according to Saul:

“Do”: –Be as clear as possible about the meaning of your message; use specifics and avoid ambiguous wording. –Review messages before sending them out. –Be as polite as possible. –Give correspondents the benefit of the doubt—if receiving seemingly harsh messages or chain mail, first assume the cause is unfamiliarity with e-mail.

“Don’t”: –Reply to “all recipients” unless they all need to see it. –Send a message while angry; a message can be postponed and sent later. –Type in all capital letters, it may be seen as hostile or similar to shouting. –Send chain letters. –Use e-mail to deliver work-related criticism; call, or meet face-to-face, instead.

One issue that requires personal discretion is whether the sender should include the portion of the message being replied to in their reply. Some believe sending the old message is helpful, as the original context is often forgotten, while others find it annoying to sift through both messages to find the new one.

“E-mail is a new technology, and the conventions of e-mail etiquette are still unknown by many…so the bottom line is to realize this and be as considerate as possible,” said Saul.

Information Technology Division