Welles: Think before you 'send'

The authors explore the etiquette of e-mail in a new book of tips on avoiding mishaps

If you have ever sent an e-mail you regretted or received one you didn’t understand, you need this book. “Send: The Essential Guide to E-mail for Office and Home” by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe is, as the cover says, a survival guide for the Digital Age.
Shipley, op-ed editor of the New York Times, and Schwalbe, editor in chief of Hyperion Books, know what they are writing about, and they write it well. The opening chapter states, “Bad things can happen on e-mail.” The authors cite some classic examples, including ostensibly frivolous messages sent by former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown during Hurricane Katrina. Writing to the entire FEMA staff, Brown referred to his “lovely FEMA attire” and being “a fashion god.”

As the authors observe, we e-mail badly “because we are too quick on the draw” and “because we’ve forgotten who we were in relation to the person we were writing.” Or more simply, we tap the wrong key. We also fail to express enough personality, or we share too many of our emotions.

The premise of the book is that although we may complain about the volume of e-mail we receive — and BlackBerrys make it an around-the-clock proposition — it’s not the quantity but the poor quality of those e-mail messages that may overwhelm us. 

The book covers the strengths and weaknesses of e-mail, including reasons you may not want to e-mail at all. For example, it’s so easy to e-mail that people may do it too often, sending unnecessary information and continuing a back-and-forth conversation far too long. E-mail has also replaced the telephone, but sometimes it’s easier to make a quick phone call to solve a problem.

E-mail can also wind up in the inboxes of people for whom it is not intended. The authors say the best way to protect yourself is to assume everything you write will be forwarded. That assumption can help you decide what you write about, how you express yourself and to whom you send the message.

Before you respond to an e-mail message or forward it, you should also think carefully about the “Cc’s” and “Bcc’s.”  Don’t click Reply All if you are unsure of the identity and title of those who will be copied. On the other hand, if you’re the boss, consider copying people on the ladder between you and the person you are e-mailing to encourage transparency and communication.

An absolute rule when you reply to an e-mail is to answer at the top, not at the bottom, of the message. No one has time to scroll down an e-mail to figure out your reply.

Shipley and Schwalbe also highlight the Eight Deadly Sins of E-mail.  For example, you should avoid e-mail that:
  • Is vague: “Remember to do that thing.”
  • Won’t go away: “Re:Re:Re:Re:Re: Re:Re: that thing.”
  • Is too casual: “Hiya! Any word on that thing?”

Finally, the authors hope you will take at least two ideas from their book.
1. Think before you send.
2. Send e-mail you would like to receive (sort of like “do unto others…”).

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@1105govinfo.com.

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