Email Etiquette

or how not to make enemies

In a world where people depend upon e-mail to communicate, how do we sometimes get it so wrong? We've heard about the employees who have been sacked because an email contained less than professional images but many others have been directed to the fire exit simply because a hurried email has been misunderstood by the recipient.

E-mail is a powerful and convenient medium but researchers have identified three major problems.

  • We use facial expression and tone of voice to convey meaning in conversations. You can't do this in emails, unless you litter the thing with smileys, and this makes it difficult for recipients to grasp your mood.
  • E-mail cannot adequately convey emotion.
  • Instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness.

A recent study focused on how well sarcasm is detected in electronic messages. For example. Take the following statement.

You will be lucky if you can get him to work for you.

Did you read that as the chap is really good and you will have a hard time attracting him to your company? Or did you understand that he's a complete layabout and if you can get him to lift a finger we'll all be amazed?

Not only do e-mail senders overestimate their ability to communicate intentions, but recipients also overestimate their ability to correctly decode their feelings. One reason for this is that people assume others experience things the same way they do. E-mail can seem like face-to-face communication, it's informal and rapid, so you assume you're getting the same cues you get from spoken communication.

To avoid doom, gloom and disaster, look at what you write from the perspective of the other person. If possible, write it, save it as a draft and go back to it. If it's a particularly critical email, get someone else to go over it before you send it. Read it aloud in the opposite way you intend, whether serious or sarcastic. If it makes sense from the opposite meaning, revise it. The same of course applies to tutorials, so if anyone has taken this the wrong way then I can assure them it's not how I meant it.