Yesterday I received an email from a student asking several questions about an assignment due the first class after the holidays. Because of the nature of the questions, and my irritation at having to consider teaching during my vacation from the classroom, I answered this email with one word: “No.” Within minutes I realized how rude my response had been! That incident prompted the following reflection on email as a method of communication that remains very susceptible to misuse and misinterpretation.
E-mail has been around long enough that we should know how to properly use it. But that is definitely not the case. As I coach my executive clients, I continually hear complaints from them about the lack of email etiquette, including the following most common inappropriate uses of email:
1. Using email as a weapon. We complain in an e-mail message to a co-worker about an issue we have with them and “cc” their supervisor and others. Rather than resolve the issue, our email escalates it to a conflict.
2. Sending an angry e-mail to many people. Upset with a policy or a decision, we email everyone in the entire organization about our dissatisfaction. This doesn’t constructively address the issue and we look like a malcontent.
3. Using abusive language. We would not use the abusive language (“stupid”, “lazy”, “inconsiderate”) we use in emails, in a face-to-face encounter – unless we want to get smacked up side of our head!
4. Being to “business like.” Emails that are to brief or abrupt cause us to be perceived as being angry or upset.
5. Revealing sensitive information. The content of every email is a permanent record that can be shared with everyone – including another person’s lawyer- so discussing sensitive stuff in an email is a no-no.
Email naturally lends itself to rudeness, disrespect, misunderstanding, and hostility. We even unintentionally offend co-workers because we have little control over how they perceive the tone of our emails. Because of the inherent nature of email, always observe the following “Best Practices of Email Etiquette”:
1. Decide if you should send the email. Ask yourself: Why am I sending the email, and can I better achieve my goal in person or on the phone?
2. Decide who should receive the email. Only send emails to those who should get them. Before adding any name to the “cc” list, ask yourself: Does this person really need to read this email?
3. Consider the tone of the email. People cannot detect subtleties in an email, so avoid sarcasm and most humor. Sending a message in all uppercase letters is perceived as shouting. Avoid long, rambling messages (they sound argumentative or whiny) and very brief messages (like “No”), which are seen as cold and unfriendly. Read the email out loud to determine if you sound condescending or angry.
4. Do not fight with emails. Resolve conflicts that arise in emails in person. Do not respond to an angry or insulting email message immediately. Instead, compose a reply, save it for 24 hours, and then reread it. If it still reflects the way you feel, send it. Never send important e-mail messages when you are tired or angry.
5. Compose every e-mail message as if it will be on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper. You can never retrieve a sent message. Sending an email message saying you are retracting an earlier e-mail message will not repair any damage done by the first email. Remember, some issues are not suited for email.
And to the student to whom I so rudely replied: my humble apologies and a 2009 Resolution to remember Email Etiquette!