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FedStyle: Dos and don'ts of online communications

Whether you’re a baby boomer or millennial in the federal workforce, chances are email, instant messaging and other electronic communications play a major role in your daily interactions. However, the likelihood is also many of you forgo proper etiquette when communicating electronically with colleagues and managers, whether it’s taking too casual of a tone in an email or oversharing on social media sites, says Dr. Naomi Baron, a linguist and executive director at the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning at American University. Baron, who also happens to be my old honors professor, took some time to lay out some simple guidelines to keep in mind to avoid communications faux pas. Her best advice: Err on the side of caution, and keep your online messages strictly business. 

Anything you write online could be read by anyone – even your manager. It’s not just Facebook, Twitter and YouTube where you have to be careful with what you post; even your personal emails could end up in the wrong hands, Baron said. “At worst, your post could go viral,” she said. “It’s increasingly important to remember you have almost no privacy if you use anything electronic. Even if you send a private email or private tweet to someone, they can forward it – and they often do.” Although social media sites have privacy settings, there’s no telling when those could change; the very information you wanted to exclude from certain users could suddenly become available to them, she said. “It’s important to remember that your audience may be far larger than you have anticipated,” Baron cautioned.

Not everyone has the same writing standard. Research shows that people crafting instant messages, texts and tweets often harmonize the style they use with the style of the person with whom they communicate, Baron said. Consider how you speak with a close friend, as opposed to communicating with a manager; your language, tone and the topics you bring up likely differ dramatically. “The same thing goes for our writing; some people care a lot about what kinds of messages they send and receive, and others are much more casual,” Baron said. “But unless you want to make yourself the laughing stock, you need to be sensitive and aware of the different kinds of style. Your readers will often pass judgment of you -- even your friends.” So, proper punctuation, spelling and salutation may not be a priority when communicating with friends or acquaintances, but for more professional contacts, it should be your default option.

Be aware of cultural differences. The federal workforce has a diverse makeup, which means communication styles may differ depending on background and nationality. Cultural differences play a significant part in how people use email, Baron said, explaining how her experience has showed that Americans are much more casual in their email writing than Europeans. “For Europeans, how they wrote mattered more – full sentences and lots of good punctuation and embedded clauses,” she explained. “There are different cultural assumptions; for example, I have colleagues in the U.K. who will never say, ‘hi Naomi’; it’s ‘hello.’ ‘Hi’ is way too casual, even though we know each other and have met many times.” Whether in a business or quasi-professional setting where you want to be perceived in a certain way, it’s always important to know how your email is likely to be read, “because there are assumptions out there that could put you in a negative light,” Baron warned.

Next week, Baron will share the rest of her dos and don’ts in FedStyle, including picking the right medium for your message. Stay tuned!

Posted by Camille Tuutti on Feb 10, 2012 at 12:19 PM


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Reader comments

Tue, Feb 14, 2012

Looks like someone took an article out of the late 1990's/early 2000's and updated it for 2012 by adding in facebook and other methodologies.

Mon, Feb 13, 2012

HAHAHA! "...(P)proper punctuation, spelling and salutation may not be a priority when commuting (sic) with friends or acquaintances, but for more professional contacts, it should be your default option." So should proofreading your own article!

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