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AVOIDING THE DARK SIDE OF EMAIL



by Jim Britell


Summary:  
Email is a powerful tool with unique advantages over speech and other forms of writing, but can cause problems not found in those other forms of communication. Many hints and suggestions for email's predictable yet avoidable problems including "flaming". Getting others to read and respond to your posts.



Background
Email differs from other written communications like letters because it does not have the inherent "second thought" protections automatically provided by the physical preparation, assembly, built-in delay, and cost which postal mail provides. A letter cannot be easily composed, written and dispatched in a few minutes as email can. Even a one-page fax takes a little time to create and imposes some costs to the sender.

Email is very different from speech too because written and spoken words are different. Spoken words have the ability to convey meaning through inflection and the stress, accent, and pauses on certain words and syllables. So, while email sometimes feels like speech, and may be used as a real-time substitute for speech, it lacks most of the feedback present in face-to-face and phone conversations. In speech, as the conversation unfolds, the recipient's reactions can be immediately assessed, corrected and adjusted as we go. In speech there are some words and phrases used just to establish and maintain rapport or "communion" between the parties. e.g. "I see"; "I hear you"; and "hmmm." These are are referred to as "Phatic Functions."

For example, the simple phrase "I will sleep with you." might convey wildly different messages depending on which word in the sentence got an inflection. While writers of email may compose their missives as if they are speaking to their intended recipient, the person on the other end just reads it.

Since email lacks the benefit of the many unconscious inflections and facial expressions that often moderate, soften, or contextualize speech, email is particularly ill suited for messages where words are meant to carry humor, satire, irony, criticism, or an emotional charge. Messages never intended by the writer may sneak into these kinds of posts; particularly between people with little prior history of oral communication. Email replies that insist "I already told you that" or are radically different from what the writer anticipated may indicate that speech vs. writing problems have crept into your email.

Of course, after you have dispatched an email and are waiting for a reply, you cannot be sure if your intended recipient actually received the message or, if he did, if he read it with the care appropriate to the care, attention, or spirit in which you composed it. In the first few seconds of a phone call, the parties make an implicit contract to do two things: 1. participate in the interaction and, 2. commit a portion of time for the exchange. Email establishes no such contract so one is never sure whether a lack of response is itself a message i.e. your email was uninteresting or not worthy of response; or the recipient didn't receive your email or is perhaps on vacation, or is otherwise too busy to respond. In a phone call, a lot of crazy things can happen but the other party will seldom fail to say anything at all; and if that happens, one generally knows if he or she is still listening. With mail you cannot ask the equivalent of, "Are you there?"

Paradoxically, while email may travel at the speed of light "for free", when it goes undeliverable, it is a medium far inferior to surface mail back in the age of the sailing ships. Post offices have always handled undeliverables better than email does. At least the post office will forward mail to a new address, and they don't return letters as "undeliverable" because a single character in an address is bad, or the local post office is "down" temporarily for maintenance. And of course no post office would reformat and deform your text so your carefully composed missive displays like the product of an illiterate or someone writing in a secret code as the email process occasionally does.

Email's Dirty Little Secret
As the volume of an individual's email increases, people have to resort to triage in disposing of their email to keep their in-basket from growing into unread mountains. This causes much incoming mail to simply be unread and trashed. Frustration and confusion can arise when a person consistently opens and reads another's email with a care and diligence not reciprocated. In other words, person A is carefully reading incoming email from person B, but does not know that person B is not reading the incoming email from person A with commensurate diligence.

Unfortunately there is no consistent "netiquette" which gives feedback to a person when they begin to overuse or misuse email. Indiscriminate, inappropriate, or overuse of email can cause others to trash incoming email unread. Some people create so much email that it begins to border on spamming and their email credibility deteriorates. Then, like the boy who cried wolf, when they have something original or important to say, their message never even gets opened. In extreme cases, people can and will set their email program to reject all email from a particular person so it never even arrives in their in-basket. Don't become an email-abuser. When a person is "blacklisted" and then sends an email to another, especially if they use the (reply-to) function and their email goes out with a subject header that does not clue the recipient that it is personal, that email may never be read. If you don't want your email read - just send out a steady impulsive stream of unsolicited email, and combine in your messages: personal and generic messages; copies of articles and reposts from others, redundant alerts etc. To clinch it, use subject lines that are not clear.

Problems with spouses who use the same email address.
Under the misguided notion that "we are one!" or an attempt to save the $5.00 a month a separate email address can cost, some spouses both use one email address. Their email always arrives from (john and mary), so you can not tell from your in-basket which one actually sent it and they cannot tell which spouse an incoming post is intended for. This inevitably leads to trouble when a person opens an email intended for their spouse and then forgets to tell them. Or when a person is traveling and a lot of their email accumulates.

In one case, I was exchanging a long series of emails with (John) of the couple (John and Mary) and when the issue was finally resolved, I received another post from (John and Mary) and assumed it was a redundant reply from (John) and I trashed it unread. But the email was actually a message from (Mary) about something completely different. Months later I learned she was very offended because she thought I had ignored her long, personal letter. There would have been no problem if they had separate email addresses. My relationship with both went off the track and could not be repaired.

Here are some indicators or predictors of whether the content of your email is in danger of being misunderstood.

Continuum Of Predictors Of Problem-Prone Email

FEWER PROBLEMS MORE PROBLEMS
THE RECIPIENT(S) OF YOUR EMAIL MESSAGE:
Well known to you unknown to you
Stable and mature loosely wired and unstable
Friendly unfriendly, unknown to you
Frequent face-to-face-communication Infrequent
Reasonable workload overworked, harried
Has time to compose email Inundated with email
THE CONTENT OF YOUR EMAIL:
Simple, straightforward Complex
non-threaded One of a long thread with many contributors
One addressee Many addressees, cc's and bcc's
Simple format & layout Complex formatting
u/75 characters per lines, ASCII o/75 chars, Non-ASCII

Email Helpers

Problems with email, especially those that lead to flaming or misunderstanding, can be avoided with some simple conventions which have been developed by those who use email extensively. There are a number of simple "helpers" which will insure that your email always works. Whenever an email exchange goes poorly, your first reaction should be not to respond in-kind, but to pick up the phone or get together face-to-face with the other person to get the communication problem cleared up. Hopefully the situation has not gone so far that it cannot be remedied. Humans have had thousands of years to work out conventions of spoken and written communications. Email is a new form of communication that has only been around for a few years and we have only begun to establish its conventions and ground rules. But the following one seems inviolable and non-negotiable.

Read and spell-check all your email before you send it; and if you must compose a nasty or highly critical email, hold it at least overnight before you send it. You will usually cool off enough that it will never have to be sent. BTW, I have accumulated about 50 of these in my "hold file" over the years.

How To Be Courteous And Maintain Rapport

  1. If I want to tell you something, but I want you to know I am humble about it or I understand I may be wrong in what I am about to say. I preface my remark with: (IMHO) which stands for "in my humble opinion."
  2. You send me an email but I am busy. I want you to know I received your email but I do not have time to send a response right now. I reply: (thanks - more later).
  3. Courtesy is important, especially in email communication. Begin email like a phone call or letter by always addressing the person by name.
  4. I am emailing a copy of a memo and the recipient may already have it. I do not want to appear to insult his intelligence, so I may say: "for ease of reference, I attached the following."
  5. If I do not want an email forwarded under any conditions, I type at the top: (DO NOT FORWARD).
  6. The most gross violation of "netiquette" is to forward someone's email without their express permission. NEVER DO IT! However, if you are sent an email with an address-list format, it may be a special situation that permits forwarding.
  7. I am going to tell you something general or pass on some information I think would be of interest to you, so I preface it with (FYI) which stands for "for your information."
  8. Sending unsolicited distributions of email is "spamming" no matter how important your ideas and observations may seem to you. If you want to create a list, set it up formally. Do one mass distribution and ask people if they want more alerts from you. Only send your material to those who respond.

Avoid Messy Format And Appearance Problems

  1. If you simply copy and paste text from someplace else and put it in an email message without first cleaning it up, the chances are pretty good that it will become garbled in transmission. There is no excuse for mail to have broken lines, poorly formatted text or odd characters. Most of these problems arise when text is cut and pasted from programs with large character sets (like Word processing or the Web) into email with its smaller set; or pasted in from text whose line length exceeds what than email can accommodate (usually 75 characters.).
  2. If you see a poorly formatted post tell the sender so they can see what they might be doing wrong by consulting their email manual or technicians at their host.
  3. Before you release a complex post send it to yourself first and see if it looks OK. Check for line breaks and garbage characters and look in the "long headers" or expanded address to see if your email was sent as a "ascii" message. If so, you can be assured that it has no problem characters. If it says "OSO " then you are likely to have formatting problems
  4. Some servers and programs truncate messages that exceed a certain length. If your post is very long put END at the end and tell your readers that you have done so.

Use Care, & Consider The Recipient, In Composing Replies

  1. John Doe sends me an email three lines long which says "blah, blah, blah." I want to respond and I want to make it clear exactly what I am responding to, so I begin my reply with: John: You said "blah, blah, blah." Then I reply.
  2. John writes a ten-line email and I want to respond to just one line, so I begin: John: You said (then I reiterate the one line) and then I respond to the line. Alternatively, if I am lifting a long section from an email and I want it clear there is much more I am not including, I leave a line and type: (snip); then I quote with brackets (blah, blah, blah).
  3. I am responding to a thread, which is a sequential exchange that has been going on for a number of emails that has several people responding back and forth, and I want to reply to someone's response. I could preface my reply with: John said: "blah" and Bill said "thus and so. My reply would then follow.
  4. If I quote from an email which includes a portion of another email, I put the selection in double >> as in >>blah, blah>>.
  5. I am sending an email and in my text I am referring to something you would enter on a keyboard. I enclose that phrase in (brackets) i.e. "To do this just enter (Return)", which is clearer than: "To do this just enter Return."

Be Careful With Humor, Teasing And Emotion

  1. Teasing in an email message is generally best avoided, but I want to make a teasing remark to John like, "John, you are completely full of crap!" Which if John was present, I would say with a smile so he could tell I was just teasing. In email, I would type: John, you are full of crap! ; ) Note the "smiley, :) or "smile face". It is called an emoticon, and tells John I am trying to be funny. Try reading the above phrase with and without the "smile face."
  2. I am writing something and feeling sad. It is important that my email convey my sadness. I might type :(
  3. I think something is very funny so I preface it with: (LOL) which stands for "laughing out loud."
  4. Hold a nasty message overnight and have a third party read it before release.
  5. Always read your own outgoing messages and spell check them before you dispatch them.

Be Clear About Audience, Author, And Subject

  1. I am sending an email to a list of people. I begin it with "friends:". If I am writing to John, but copying to others, I address the email to John and use "cc" for the others on my list.
  2. When forwarding material from someone else or if your reader could be confused as to who the author may be include a sentence at the top telling the reader what the post is about.
  3. If I want to hide the names of addressees to a post I use bcc's (abbr. for blind carbon copies) to hide the address list. Failing to do this properly when for example changing an email address will disclose to everyone in your address book, ALL the other people in your address book. (Last week for example I learned something VERY interesting when someone accidentally used cc's instead of bcc's.
  4. I am sending out a draft by email. I put (DRAFT) in caps at the top so anyone who receives it knows they are reading just a draft and not a finished copy.
  5. If I am transmitting a draft for another person, the content of which, I may not personally agree with, I may say at the top: (the following thoughts may not necessarily reflect the views of the writer).
  6. I am sending you a number of items. I number them 1...2...3... etc.
  7. If it is important that John read a personal email from me to him, I make the SUBJECT LINE (Jim to John). That way John knows this email is personal. But if I use up the subject line in this way and the content of the email is about another piece of email, I indicate this on the top line of the post itself: (This email is about: email dated such and such a date, subject such and such). I have to do this in this way as I have already used the SUBJECT LINE to get my readers attention.
  8. Never change the SUBJECT LINE of a thread midstream, as the sequence of the thread will be hopelessly lost. Also remember that different email programs date email differently so the recipient may get one of a sequence of emails out of context. Some programs date your email from when you first begin to compose it not when you dispatch it.

Finally If you have any question about how someone will receive your message, you can end it with: (your friend) or in an extreme case: (xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx) which, of course, means: "lots of kisses."

And if you do not want to be misquoted or you are conveying an important secret strategy or you want to be sure your message can not be misrouted, well, you'd better use a fax or the US mail.

Some references:
Essay on how the absence of the use of "smileys and other emoticons like (IMHO) always lead to flame wars.
Netiquette" in general use.
Phatic Functions, aka Phatic "Communion".

©1996 Jim Britell
All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without permission.


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