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E-mail Rudeness Does Not Compute

Dave Gordon - Wednesday, 20 February, 2008

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I have noticed that social decorum has been tossed out the window with some people's use of email. Text messaging is one thing – it is supposed to be quick, convenient, the least cumbersome and gets the message across in the smallest amount of characters.

Not so with email.

I have long wondered whether email should be treated as though it were verbal communication (speaking) or written communication (letters). I have concluded that since email is written down, the rules of letter-writing should be put into place. People have the option of editing emails, like letters, and therefore have a little more time to edit in basic civility.

In the same way that close friends and family speak to one another, I can understand informality over email. When it comes to strangers, business associates, acquaintances, and people that are not close, informality borders on the rude. Serious topics over email, I maintain should be written with social decorum.

Like a letter, I think that all emails should begin with a salutation. Something like "Dear…" or "Hello…" with the person's name. It doesn't cost anything, besides a half-second of time, and it adds an air of distinction.

With long discussions, all emails should include a cut-n-paste of previous correspondence – a copy of the last email thread - so that the receiver can remind themselves of the conversation, and have notes handy for reference. Some Internet Service Providers do this for you. If they do not, please be kind, and rewind.

A recent email dialogue reinforced my frustrations with people's nonchalance towards basic politeness. I had been working for a company on a freelance basis, doing some corporate writing. Two days after finishing my work, I sent an email to the man I was working for, that looked like this:

"Hi Bob, just dropping a line to see if everything was OK. Do you need anything more from me? DAVE"

 This was his response, simply: "huh???"

 It seemed as if it simulated that annoying verbal honking sound people make when they want you to repeat something they didn't hear, rather than say "Pardon me?"

My note wasn't cryptic, hieroglyphic, or mysterious. Obviously, not everyone is that thick. But if he really didn't understand what I was saying, his grown-up answer should have looked like this:

"Hi Dave, I don't understand what you're saying. Could you please clarify? Thanks, Bob."

 In another recent example, a friend received this email from her father in the subject heading: "hope you're well – fyi I had to put Muffie down this morning."

Muffie was this young woman's dog. There was no text in the body of the message, no explanation of why the dog had to be euthanized, and his casualness demonstrated frosty indifference to her feelings.

No question this email was soulless, cold and blunt. It's not something one might send to inform someone that their close family pet of eight years had to be killed. Someone with a modicum of social decorum might have titled the subject line "Sad news," and wrote in the body text the following: "I'm really sorry to have to tell you this, but Muffie had a stroke, had to be rushed to the vet this morning, and unfortunately we had to make the sad decision to put him down. I know you'll truly miss him. I'm so sorry."

While I understand that some people are truly idiots, like these guys above, others are open to friendly suggestions of how to make email communication a less maddening world.

It is because of this, and other examples I've seen over the years that has compelled me to create Email Rules of Etiquette. It is a work in progress, and I welcome further additions to this list.

 1.        Use their name. When you write a letter, you begin with "Dear x." Writing a letter and writing an email are the same thing.

2.        Hit "reply" and keep the thread from the previous correspondence.

3.        When you finish, sign off with your name, like a letter.

4.        Never, ever, WRITE IN ALL CAPS. It's like you're yelling.

5.        Never, ever, send chain letters. Jokes are OK if they are short, and infrequent. People's inboxes are cluttered enough.

6.        Do not hit "reply all" unless you think everyone wants to see what you said to the one person you're responding to.

7.        Respect people's privacy. If you CC others, be sure they don't mind having their emails, or their email addresses, known to others. Otherwise, use BCC.

8.        Always use a descriptive subject line. Some people discard e-mail without them. (eg: Don't send something titled "Hi.")

9.        Do not read others' emails. If someone's email has been forwarded to you without the author's permission, it is an invasion of privacy. You wouldn't want random people reading your mail. If it wasn't addressed to you, don't read it.

10.     If there's something you need to ask, be polite. Act as if you were standing in front of them, asking verbally.

11.     If it's an important message, read the message (even aloud!) over several times before hitting send to make sure you are saying what you mean to say. It saves the other person from having to email back asking what you meant.

12.     If it's an important message, read the message (even aloud!) that you have received, several times if necessary, if you think there may be misunderstandings.

13.     Avoid, if possible, using your work emails for personal correspondences. Your boss may have the right to monitor your incoming and outgoing emails, even without you knowing it.

14.     If you're going to forward a message to someone else, strip all the extraneous information and computerspeak characters from it beforehand. It cuts down on the size of the message and makes it easier to read. This is just another form of common e-courtesy that too many people have forgotten (or don't think about).

15.     Go easy on punctuation. Don't use five periods when one (or three) will do. Don't use five exclamation marks when one will do (Thanks, Elaine). Take the time to use contractions – it looks lazy when cant and wont are used. Unless of course you mean that you are wont to use the cant of the lazy email world.

16.     Emails are like phone calls. If you don't return the call within about two days, tops, you are being rude.

17. Please check spelling and grammar. It's annoying to some of us to see easily corrected words misspelled. 

18. Use acronyms sparingly, for those of us who don't know all of them, and for those of us who might not appreciate the informality. If you are talking to a friend, fine. But everyone else needn't see: brb, wtf, bfd, tba, omg, btw, woot, fyi, lol or rotfl.

(more to come...)


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