During this column's younger days I invented Ten Commandments of E-mail Etiquette, and it took only a few months to come up with 10 more...
During this column’s younger days I invented Ten Commandments of E-mail Etiquette, and it took only a few months to come up with 10 more. Today we are farther along the learning curve, requiring a simpler, shorter set of rules to guide online behavior. I expect this list to stimulate discussions in classrooms, seminars and knitting circles worldwide.
Strive for clarity. The best way to get people to pay attention to your messages is to let them know exactly what they are about. This requires two steps: The subject line should summarize the message content in four or fewer words. And the essence of the message needs to appear in the first paragraph. You can go on for a while after that first few lines, but don’t expect the recipient to read on.
Control spam. In one respect, this is your own concern. If you are happy wading through 50 bogus messages each day and deleting them one at a time, it should be nobody else’s business. In fact, controlling spam is the responsibility of anyone who seeks to be a responsible recipient. If you follow a random method of ditching spam, the chances of deleting something important increase. So I might send a compelling message you will not read because you are deleting everything that doesn’t look important. (This also relates to the above rule about clarity. If I follow that path, the chance of confusion with spam decreases).
Manage attachments. With increased bandwidth, you can now send attachments without asking permission. In most cases, a recipient can handle a 2 MB document or picture (although I still draw the line at large PowerPoint files). Attachment etiquette, however, is governed by some overlapping rules: Don’t send anything stupid or irrelevant that will not enhance the recipient’s life in some way. And if you send pictures, decrease their size so they don’t fill the screen after the download.
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Pace communications. It once was true that you had to always answer any message right away. To do so proved your commitment to the importance of the message. Today, receiving a message doesn’t require you to jump up and provide an immediate response. You can wait a day, a month, or however long it takes for the motivating spirit to arrive. There are people who require an immediate answer, while some deserve a monthly missive. The trick is telling the difference, and pacing the messages for maximum effect. With some people you can exhaust your interest in them with two weeks’ worth of daily messages. Send one a month and you can drag it out for a year and because there will be more to say.
Think before sending. There are still some absolute rules. Don’t send flames, as you will regret them later. Don’t send jokes; we’ve heard them all before. Don’t send broadcast messages; if it’s not addressed directly to me I don’t want it. And I will lose respect for the sender. In a broader sense, any message that is irrelevant, unnecessary or stupid should stay in the drafts folder. These are subjective judgments. But taking a minute before sending each message to decide if it is really necessary saves everybody time.