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In principle, e-mail is an efficient way to communicate in groups, but it is a relatively new way of communicating that we are still getting used to. E-mail is instant, like conversation; enduring, like a written document; and able to be copied and distributed like nothing we have ever known. The combination of these three attributes makes it rather like a chainsaw: very effective when used properly, very dangerous when used on impulse or in anger.

E-mail is most effective when used to convey facts quickly. E-mail is most destructive when used to convey a negative reaction to something, like a previous e-mail. It is so quick and easy that we are apt to forget that what we write may be distributed far and wide and long after the feelings behind it have subsided. It is so impersonal that we are apt to underestimate its effect on other people’s emotions.

And then there is the problem of interpretation: Very few of us are skilled enough to convey exactly what we mean with written words, or discern exactly what written words were meant to convey. E-mail messages are easily misunderstood and misunderstanding is usually at the root of bad decisions.

Practical Tip: Beware of using e-mail to convey negative emotions, arguments, or sarcasm. Be thoughtful and deliberate about who you send to and about forwarding e-mails. Consider if you should send the message at all. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it by e-mail.

If you don’t fully understand something you read in e-mail, don’t fill in the blanks with assumptions. If you don’t understand what the sender meant, ask them (perhaps by phone or in-person).

E-mail is an easy way to say something not to someone’s face. That can be efficient and/or hurtful. It cuts both ways.

– Craig Freshley

Click here for one-page PDF of this Tip, a great way to print or share.

11 thoughts on “E-mail

  1. When one is writing a letter, he should think that the recipient will make it into a hanging scroll.
    Tsunetomo Yamamoto, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

  2. In addition to the great advice above, we’ve found that one should always try to keep the number of recipients down. Our biggest email problems occur when someone blasts a message to the entire group that should more properly have been sent to one or two people.

    This often happens inadvertently when someone has their email preferences set up so the default is “Reply To All.”

    If I’m replying privately to a message that was sent to a group, I tag “[PRIVATE]” on the Subject: so they quickly recognize that it isn’t going to the group.

    It’s funny, but people are much more amenable to corrections or criticism when told personally then when it is blasted out for public ridicule!

  3. Because e-mail has become so commonplace as a communication tool in the work environment, it is important to recognize its inherent dangers. This tip reminds us to pause and consider the correct use of e-mail.

  4. How true, how true….what damage can be done by e-mail and yet it feels so safe. I think it is important to remind people about this frequently!

  5. Another issue with e-mail and our current business environment is the practice of “blasting” information to everyone, rather than be selective in addressee and copies. I have so often seen to many addressees and few copies, which leads to confusion as to who is to take any actions regarding the message. Making sure that the addressee or plural, if multiple individuals need to take action, is the one to whom the e-mail is addressed and copies are used for information, to keep them informed, but not for them to take the action, other than to coordinate any actions if necessary.

  6. Well said!! I want to share this with so many people. I have had these same feelings but not been able to express them as well as you did. Thank you!!

  7. Acceptable e-mail use is a hot topic, especially as new faculty and staff members join our community and bring their e-mail culture with them. It was surprising to discover that some people used e-mail so negatively. This was a good reminder and coming from you, was objective and more easily absorbed when it was distributed to everyone.

  8. This is one of the best-ever guidelines I have seen in many years of using emails for communications; emails are going to expand and increase, for all uses, including real time emailing (chats), and are going to become more useful for group work also; therefore, it’s so important to remember these guidelines, and find new ways to disagree online too.

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