A few weeks ago, all 800 participants of the Test of Metal mountain bike race with e-mail addresses received a personal communication between organizers that referred to one participant that wanted to withdraw from the race as an "A-hole." She accidentally sent the message to every single person on the mailing list, including the person she was referring to.
She apologized to the person and to everyone who received the letter, which she claimed was written in the heat of the moment and not intended as a real insult.
Besides a poor knowledge of how her e-mail program works, and checking to make sure her message was heading to the right place, her biggest mistake was writing and sending a message in the heat of the moment. Ever dial a number on the phone and forget who you were calling when the person on the other picks up? Ever call somebody angry and then regret your choice of words?
Over the past decade, e-mail has become an integral part of our daily lives, like a toothbrush or the telephone. Its so commonly utilized that its almost ritual, an indulgence we fit into the gaps that we probably once used to make phone calls and chat with co-workers and family.
It makes it easy to stay in touch with the rest of the world, whether its for work or for pleasure. Its personal, its arms length, its as long or as short as you want it to be. You can be formal, you can be rude. Spelling and grammar dont seem to matter, and you can usually write a letter off the top of your head.
Yet clearly its not perfect.
How do you begin a letter? "Dear" might be okay for hand-written letters, but its seems too formal and dated for the e-mail medium. Right now, too many e-mails begin with "Hey (name)!)"
How do you end a letter? With a "Yours truly?" A "Sincerely yours?" An "F the Man?"
And what on earth should you put in the middle?
If someone writes you a long letter, are you compelled to write an equally long reply? Do you forward every little list of pick-up lines and petition that lands in your inbox?
One e-mail etiquette site ( www.iwillfollow.com/email.htm ) gives the following advice:
1) Dont be a novelist. While its okay to go into a little bit of detail with friends and family youre not in regular touch with, some people get dozens of e-mails every day and just dont have the time to read a book. Besides, in the hierarchy of sentiments, hand-written letters are better than phone calls, and phone calls are better than e-mail. Cough up for the long distance you cheap bastard.
2) Forget the punctuation. Aside from periods and the odd exclamation mark announcing the birth of your child, dont worry unnecessarily about correct punctuation. If your letters make sense and words are spelled correctly, you can get away with being a little sloppy in this area.
3) Dont personalize. Although a lot of e-mail programs allow you to add background images and colours, and format text, stick with plain script because it will work for everybody, not just people with the same e-mail software youre using.
4) Watch the abbreviations. Dont assume that everyone will know what youre talking about when you use one of the accepted chat room abbreviations, like LOL for Laughing Out Loud, or BCNU for Be Seeing You. Besides, it makes you look like a geek.
Also, dont use little smiley faces, sometimes called emoticons :) or other keyboard graphics unless the letter is to friends or family and they know whats going on. Besides, theyre meaning might be misinterpreted.
5) If its a business or personal e-mail, always reply (unless its a mass mailing) rather than start a new message. That keeps whats called a thread going, which allows you to track who said what and when, and whos turn it is to reply. For business its crucial to avoid misunderstandings, to keep up to date, and to cover your ass in the event something goes wrong.
6) Go easy on the trees. Far from ushering in a paperless society, e-mail has almost doubled paper consumption as people feel the need to print every e-mail they receive. Sometimes a hard copy is required for business purposes, and sometimes people simply dont like reading computer screens. For some people, its better to keep the inbox empty and the trash can full.
Encourage recipients not to print the message, or to print two messages per page. E-mails add a lot of text to a letter, and includes elements you dont need ever print up an e-mail and find a single line of text on the last page that you dont need? Learn to use your folders, and if necessary back up your files on disk.
7) Forget privacy. As one Test of Metal organizer could probably tell you, theres no such thing. There are no guarantees that any letter is going to end with the recipient. Some employers and system administrators monitor e-mail. Mistakes happen and sometimes a letter goes to the wrong person. Hackers can intercept and read e-mail.
Another site ( www.emailreplies.com ) recommends replying to messages that require it immediately. E-mail is not instantaneous while its generally faster than regular snail mail, sometimes it takes a message hours to find its way into your Inbox. In extremely rare circumstances, it could even take days.
Besides, the whole point of e-mail is that its fast and easy. By not replying promptly youre missing that point, and possibly holding other people up.
Other suggestions for e-mail etiquette include avoiding attaching unnecessary files, not overusing the high priority option, not writing in capital letters, not using the Reply to All function, and writing relevant subject lines.
The only advice I really have to add from experience is to choose an e-mail name that is easy to remember and presentable. I learned that lesson from a friend and business associate who sheepishly asked me to forward some work home to him at spankass@(InternetProvider).com .
More e-mail etiquette advice can be found at www.albion.com/netiquette/ , www.webfoot.com/advice/email.top.html , and www.learnthenet.com/english/html/65mailet.htm .