Living in an e-mail world

Posted: Thursday, October 21, 2004

Writing e-mails today is so convenient that it's hard to remember what life was like without that communication vehicle. From time to time my e-mails have been interpreted in ways not intended. I try not to think of how many may have been misinterpreted where the receiver didn't tell me. Sometimes when I see friends and acquaintances and they appear to be ignoring me I just think they're preoccupied with something else when in fact they're probably ticked over an e-mail I sent.

Friendships and good working relationships have been known to be lost due to e-mails inappropriately written and-or sent. Whereas I readily admit I have inadvertently gotten myself into trouble, I know others have, as well some to the extent of losing their jobs.

Therefore, I am writing this article to hopefully give you some food for thought, as well as reinforce my own advice that I have freely shared with others in my personal and professional life.

After discussing this topic in one of our committee meetings, Heidi Chay shared with me an e-mail she had sent to Chris Gehrett who was preparing for the First Friday Dialogue. Heidi wrote, "I resent the First Friday notice to the list-serve last night."

Chris became concerned that Heidi was miffed as she "resented" the notice Chris had written. Of course, Heidi meant she had sent the notice again. That one ended in a laugh, but how many others are misinterpreted to a worse end either because of misplaced punctuation, misspelled words, wrong addressees, or the inability to hear tone inflection?

Here are some helpful hints, or gentle reminders when using e-mails:

Use the telephone if at all possible. It's easy to take the e-mail shortcut but there's nothing like good old-fashioned human contact.

Put your own e-mail address in the "To" block if you are putting substantial time and thought into a sensitive e-mail. That way if you are not ready to send it, or need to look at again later, you have not lost the content, OR get in the habit of writing the message first and filling in the addressee and subject last.

When messages come from a list-serve pay attention to whom your reply goes. If not everyone needs your feedback then spare them the additional e-mails.

Don't forward junk mail or lengthy documents off the Internet. I don't think I have ever heard anyone say, "I can't wait until so-and-so sends me the next list of doctor, lawyer, police (fill in the blank) jokes." E-mails should be brief with short sentences.

Avoid at all costs sending e-mails that are written in anger. Whereas striking the keys may serve as good release, hitting the send button may not get the best result. Once again, send it to yourself first.

Do not forward messages without the permission of the sender.

Don't use capital letters throughout. It makes the message hard to read and it sounds like you're yelling.

Reread your e-mail before you send it.

Use proper spelling, formatting, punctuation and layout. This makes the e-mail easier to read and reduces the chance for misinterpretation.

Do not send obscene, racial, defamatory or offensive comments.

Do not discuss confidential matters over e-mail. This is the perfect situation where you should pick up the phone or go see someone in person.

Be careful when using abbreviations and emoticons. I get messages from one person who uses this one (: o. I don't know if he's shocked, scared, yelling, or has a big nose. I keep forgetting to ask but want to make sure I do it in person so I don't sound too critical.

Companies should have e-mail policies in place. Employees need to know up front what is expected of them in the use of e-mails in the workplace. Some companies have learned the hard way through lawsuits when inappropriate corporate e-mails were sent. There are better ways than removing the e-mail access (although this is less threatened today than several years ago) as a communication tool and that is done through policies, as well as follow-through when the policy is violated. Many companies would be willing to share their policies, and samples are available on the Internet.

There are indeed horror stories, but we all know the benefits are far greater and wide ranging. In addition to staying in contact with loved ones, our work in many areas has decreased with the sharing of information.

The Xerox Corp. recently conducted a survey that showed nearly 50 percent of respondents in any given day shared their work with colleagues.

This part is for the readers of e-mails in the interest of good communications and stable relationships, don't assume. If you have a doubt or a question as to the intent of an e-mail get clarification.

Good luck to us all as we hone those e-mail skills and keep the positive dialogue going.

Shirley Gifford is the president of the governing body for the Center for Mediation and Community Dialogue.

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