Brush up on ‘netiquette’ for e-impact

With widespread e-mail use 20 years old and a half million non-spam e-mails sent every second, you’d think we’d all be e-mail experts, but we’re not. I’m stumped by the number of small mistakes, and amazed by the whoppers.

The small errors fall into the category of poor “netiquette,” i.e. Internet manners. Most of us know to avoid all capitalization, the e-quivalent of shouting. Most know to fill in the subject box, steer clear of foul language, check spelling and punctuation and double check the distribution list.

When a person slips on the basics, the consequences are minor. But a mistake in one of three areas — context, dispute and ambiguous mood — can do real damage.

When you write an e-mail, your head is filled with context, the immediate topic or problem. But the message might strike the recipient out of the blue, his or her focus scrambled by dozens of other e-mails on many topics. At our marketing firm, the staff will occasionally cluster around an e-mail from a client and wonder, “What do you think he’s asking us to do?”

You could expect the recipient to study the e-mail trail to determine context, but that’s making them do the work. Instead, set the stage for them. Explain what the message pertains to, and then make your point.

Arguing by e-mail is like juggling knives. A nasty-gram can prompt a snarky counterattack, protected by time and distance, without the limiting factors of a person-to-person encounter. So when the prose flaming from your fingertips feels as satisfying as landing a punch, lift your hands from the keyboard and pick up the phone instead.

Then there’s another challenge. When we meet face to face, we learn what’s on a person’s mind through their words, but we learn what they’re feeling through their facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice. Even the sound on the other end of a phone call reveals mood, whether they’re happy, frustrated or overwhelmed.

An e-mail has no such indicators built in. Exacerbating the problem, without clues embedded in the e-mail, we instinctively worry the sender has a bone to pick.

Our company has a longtime client we first got to know exclusively by e-mail. Through a few months, his messages painted the picture of a humorless bureaucrat in need of a different line of work. Then, at a conference, we met him, a scintillating personality, the kind you’d eagerly invite to your dinner party.

My co-workers are delightful, but that doesn’t guarantee their appeal comes through in e-mails. I recently noticed a staff member writing very official client e-mails. Clear and flawless, they had the sparkle of a page from the phone book. But in contrast, her e-mails around the office oozed energy and wit.

I advised her and all members of our team to let their personalities come through, even with the most routine e-mails. Whether celebrating the Colorado sunshine or grumbling about shoveling snow, off-topic tidbits inject humanity and remind the recipient that the main point of the e-mail, even if it’s unpleasant, is only one corner of the big picture.

Lastly, even if you’re in a hurry, never underestimate the power of calling someone by their name, signing a message with “Best regards,” and throwing in a “Hope all is well with you!”

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