Send e-mail with care

December 04, 2003|By Harry Jackson Jr. | Harry Jackson Jr.,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ST. LOUIS - Electronic mail has become the third-most popular form of communication behind meeting face-to-face and speaking on the telephone. Billions of e-mail "letters" from individuals, corporations, governments and other facilities and countries cross paths every day.

So what has changed? Until the mid-1990s, when the broad embrace of e-mail became a household tool, letters were the way to communicate in writing. Many protocols regulated letters from the formal, typewritten, businesslike to very casual, handwritten and colloquial.

E-mail changed that. Formalities have gone by the wayside, partly because e-mail is so easy to use. A researcher at Yahoo.com described e-mail as being in that twilight zone between conversation and letter writing; people often use e-mail, he said, as if they're having a conversation; yet they see e-mail carry more weight because the thoughts are in writing.

That, says Kimberly A. Kennedy, an associate professor of communications at St. Louis University, is why e-mail users need to remember that communication by e-mail is still communication.

"It's what I call politeness rules: Even though it's an electronic form of communication, the politeness you expect in face-to-face responses still applies. The behavior you expect in face-to-face exchanges still applies."

Kennedy offered a few rules for sending e-mail.

Fill in the subject line: Lack of a subject line is annoying.

Use signatures: Have separate ones for work and for family and friends. You don't want to send your sister an e-mail signed "Dr. Jane Doe, Ph.D., CEO, Department of Long Titles"; don't send your boss an e-mail signed "Pookie."

Keep it simple: Be succinct; be brief.

Use correct grammar and spelling: "That's exceptionally important" in professional or personal e-mail. But keep in mind: Even more tasteless than sending an e-mail full of spelling and grammar errors is correcting the errors and sending it back.

Don't use uppercase letters throughout: That's shouting.

Don't use those little faces made with punctuation marks. They have no place in professional and business e-mail.

Don't make knee-jerk reactions. "Studies suggest that 80 [percent] to 90 percent of communication, of the meaning, is nonverbal. So when we can't see the facial expression, we can't hear the tone of voice, it's so easy to misunderstand. This is why some topics just don't belong in e-mail."

Be careful sending an electronic wedding invitation or funeral notice, which is risky. "The problem is that the card is perceived as a gift," she said. "People love gifts that show time investment on the part of the giver, that the gift sends a message that they know you. That's the biggie."

Use caution when sending electronic greetings because they can be perceived as a last-minute rush job. "When we get Christmas cards, most people put them up, put them on the mantle, put them on display," she said. "I don't know a single person who has kept an electronic card."

Still, if there is a place where form rules, it's with very personal greeting cards - e-cards or e-greetings, as they're increasingly being called.

Molly McMahon, a spokeswoman for America Online, says about 38 percent of AOL subscribers send e-greetings every month and 15 percent send e-greetings every week. Christmas e-greetings quadruple the traffic and Thanksgiving greetings triple the traffic, she said.

James Hetherington, site manager for E-cards.com, agrees that holidays produce a strong demand for e-cards, but says Christmas is second to Valentine's Day, when the e-cards business truly feels the love.

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