Ten rules of electronic mail

May 1, 2007
As we have all discovered to our dismay, it is too easy to dash off a flaming reply to a provocative e-mail and zap it to all and sundry by CC or carbon copy (does anyone still use a typewriter with carbon sheets?).

We’ve all had those days when the infamous Murphy’s Law applies: if anything can go wrong, it will. And just as you are about to call it quits, an e-mail pops up from some blithering idiot in the podunk office moaning about perceived bugs in the drivers for your latest widget. So you fire off a zinger of an e-mail (see above)-mistake 1-and thump the “reply all” key on your email program-mistake 2-and so on. Don’t be too surprised if your e-mail box bursts open like a firecracker the next day.

What you may need, my friend, is a copy of Netiquette, Internet Etiquette in the Age of the Blog (Software Reference, Ely, England, 2006) a slim and somewhat pricey paperback (168 pages, $24.50) by the presumptive Emily Post of the Internet, one Matthew Strawbridge. The author is a British technical writer and erstwhile software developer whose previous books have been about something called the “European Computer Driving Licence (sic),” a subject that gives me the shudders (I will say no more here).

Strawbridge has a somewhat sparse Web site (www.philoxenic.com) where one can download for free such gems as “Grammar Tips for Code Monkeys,” a sort of one-page crib sheet for the grammatically challenged.

If you’d like to add a touch of class to your emails, you would do much better to get a copy of The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, first published more than 70 years ago and now in its fourth edition. One shudders to think about what these two august authors would have said on the subject of e-mail.

As we have all discovered to our dismay, it is too easy to dash off a flaming reply to a provocative e‑mail and zap it to all and sundry by CC or carbon copy (does anyone still use a typewriter with carbon sheets?). Even worse than indiscriminate e-mail copying is the use of BCC (blind CC). E-mail is not in the least private in the way that a hand-written note used to be.

So in the interests of saving you from your boss, yourself, and your friends and enemies, I offer you, free, gratis, and for nothing, my Ten Rules of Electronic Mail:

  1. Do not reply to any e-mail that is not explicitly addressed to you. The object here is to keep the volume of e-mail down and to keep tempers from fraying.
  2. Always use a proper salutation and never say “hi” or “hello.” Goes double if you have never actually met the recipient face-to-face.
  3. Always use a closing signature with phone number and address when writing business e-mails. Never use a cute quotation from your favorite author.
  4. Never reply immediately to an email-let it simmer for a day or so. If you must communicate immediately, pick up the phone.
  5. Don’t append hundreds of e-mails to your current one-line reply. You and the recipient will never miss them. Junk file, maybe?
  6. Never use smileys or emoticons or abbreviations such as IMHO or LOL. I immediately mark such senders for my junk file that I may or may not read.
  7. Never use the “Reply all” button. Either reply only to the original sender or edit the list viciously. Chances are the other folks will never know.
  8. Do not include huge multimegabyte attachments to e-mails. Ask the recipient if he or she needs to see a copy of the document or photos.
  9. Never mix business e-mails with billets-doux to or from your sweetie. Ditto for salacious gossip that you would be ashamed to have see the light of day.
  10. Consider starting an e-mail-free day; you know, work as we oldsters did before the PC and Internet. Regale the youngsters with stories of postal mail!

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some important e-mails to junk. And, please, please don’t send me any e-mails about e-mail.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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