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Email Etiquette

Email is about people communicating Don't SHOUT - Case Matters
Include a Subject line Reply with care, quote concisely
Don't SPAM Spelling, punctuation and grammar count
Consider email security and privacy The Bandwidth Rule/Save the Trees
What is BCC? What about attachments?
Layout: Plain text or HTML? How formal should my email be?
Use of abbreviations Egroups and mailing lists
Is there anything I should know about free email? How should I use signature files?
What about viruses and email?  

Email is about people communicating

Something I was told once in a training session has stuck and it's relevance is clear:

The meaning of my communication is the response I get.

It's not what you say, or how you say it, but how the recipient understands the message and responds.

No matter what your intent was, always be aware of the recipient. Read your message at least once through before sending it. To make sure it has the desired tone, read it aloud. When in doubt, save the message overnight and reread it in the light of the dawn.

You are using a computer, not talking to one. Remember that there is a person with feelings receiving the email. Courtesy is never overdone. A pleasant salutation and closing are always appreciated.

Be extremely sensitive and careful in writing your email and be thick-skinned when reading them from others (not everyone has had your sense to investigate email etiquette). Remember that the person you email may not share your values, cultural background or opinions. Be cautious. Be slow to take offence, and be quick to apologise for any dismay caused by your email. Grovelling costs nothing and keeps relations sweet.

Is there a message, or are you just playing? Remember the Bandwidth Rule. In communication through email you want your message to be that you are respectful of others and have something relevant to say or share, and not just emailing to fill an annoyance quota.

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Don't SPAM

This is not meat in a can.

Thou shalt not use email for any illegal or unethical purpose.

Spam is the unsolicited email that is usually commercial in nature. The sender will have your email address from a mailing list, newsgroup, or web site.

If you send Spam you can lose your email account, your internet service, and possibly also be subject to criminal proceedings.

A few things you can do if you are receiving spam include setting up a "block" or "ignore", or filtering the offending subject or sender straight into the trash. The direct response approach can be risky because in some instances it is the confirmation to the sender that they have reached a real person who they consider fair target for many more emails.

What worries me most is not so much the commercial spam, but the sex spam that includes a photo attachment. My free web mail account displays the picture automatically. I wonder how many minors are getting the same email.

Visit and find out more about Spam.

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The Bandwidth Rule/Save the Trees

Consideration about bandwidth applies to email as well as web pages. Basically, be aware that not everyone has a permanent cable connection with unlimited download time, and even abusing the free internet service providers will mean they disappear.

Sending emails costs money, and receiving email costs money.

Be concise. Huge email messages are slow to download, difficult to read and usually boring. So keep it brief.

Never email an advert to someone unless you are good friends. Sending adverts over the email is obnoxious as the recipient pays for the delivery. Sending unwanted email comes into the SPAM category.

This one goes with the last rule. Before sending a message with jokes, virus alerts (that may be bogus), chain letters, etc ask yourself if the recipient will be pleased to receive it. Do they really look forward to your 50 reasons why men are dumber than women jokes? Do they love to wait ten minutes just to see the latest cartoon that caught your fancy? Whenever possible, send a compressed file or a URL, and evaluate whether the content is actually true. Don't waste bandwidth or your friends time and money!

Please RESPECT me by respecting my INBOX, and I'll respect yours.

One of the goals of email usage is to eliminate (or greatly reduce) the shuffling of paper, but what chance does that have if a significant number of people are going to print every message they receive. A good rule is to decide whether an email should be printed is whether you legally or for other reasons have to have a hard copy, or need to show the email to friends without internet access.

Unless you have a very primitive email system, it probably has some system (usually called "folders") that can be used to permanently store messages for recall at any time in the future. If the same people who print messages for paper file systems would create the same structure in the email system with folders, it would accomplish the same goal, but would save an enormous amount of paper (and trees).

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Don't SHOUT - case does matter

CAPS = shouting

Use upper and lower case letters. It's okay to emphasise a word or line in capitals but use the CAPS lock button sparingly.

The only thing harder to read than ALL CAPS is MiXeD lEtTeRs.

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Subject Line

Put a short and meaningful subject in the subject field. If the topic has changed, change the subject line if appropriate when replying. Some email programs can Sort, Alert, and Filter according to the Subject. What do you want to happen to your email?

Don't send something that might be confused for spam. If you send the boss an email with the subject "Here's a Deal for You!" it may be deleted by an automatic email filter, or your boss may look at the subject line and decide to send it to the Trash without reading it.

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Two issues to consider about attachments:

  1. Attachments are a favourite transport method for viruses.
  2. Can the recipient view the attachment

A lot of web-aware people will not download and view your attachments because they do not have the latest virus protection. Contact the recipient before sending the email and decide on how to get the information across.

When using an attachment, be sure that the recipient can read it after they've saved it. For example, sending an Microsoft Word document to someone who doesn't use MS Word isn't very productive. The same is true for different versions of the same software package, for example, sending a version 11.0 document to someone who is using version 6.0. The safest and surest way to make sure that a recipient gets your information is to include the information in the body of the message using plain text. It isn't as pretty but you'll be sure that the recipient can read it and that's the whole point.

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Layout: Plain Text or HTML

Use plain text in your e-mail messages unless you are absolutely sure that the recipient can read your special characters or HTML. Fancy text and colours, expansive signatures, and special stationery all look great, but you will have wasted your time if the recipient's email program converts it into plain text.

You may have HTML set as your default for email messages. This tends to irritate the people who don't have (or use) HTML as their default. The message may come in as utter gibberish or in the worst case, crash the email client. It's worth taking some time to select plain text as the default - you can always choose HTML for special messages.

Split up the text of your e-mail message into small paragraphs that address one topic. This makes it much easier for the recipient to respond to a specific part of your message.

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Replying and Quoting

Once you send your first email, you will probably get a response. The correct thing to do is to reply, which is essentially the same thing as creating a new message, but maintains the thread and makes it possible to follow the sequence of messages.

It is a good idea set the default value in your email client to only reply to the sender, not the sender and all of the other cc: recipients. It is just too easy to hit reply and talk about your golf game (or worse) with the sender, forgetting that everyone else will see the reply too.

In the body of the reply always include a snippet of the original text. If you just reply "Yes" to an email, the receiver will probably wonder, "Yes, what?"

Just as bad, is to include all of the original text along with the header information. Highlight the unnecessary text with your cursor and delete it or f you do need to respond to one large paragraph, a good technique is to use brackets ( ... ) to show a break when cutting the large paragraph of the original message into smaller pieces. Put your response after the quote. Keep your comments short and to the point.

When quoting an original email message, DO NOT change the contents of the original message. It is sometimes tempting to correct spelling or grammar but it is less confusing to just let the error go.

Here is an example of quoting:

>Would you like more information
>about joining a Committee?

Yes. Where do I sign up?

The '>' in front of the text indicates to the recipient that this is quoted material from their last email message. The second sentence is your response to the quoted material. The key with quoting is to include enough material in the quote so that it will be relevant to the recipient.

Quoting can occur again and again as in this example:

>>Would you like more information
>>about joining a Committee?
>Yes. Where do I sign up?

Visit this site to see what positions are available , and email me if you need further information.

From this we see both two level quoting (>>) and one level quoting (>). The (>>) indicates that the sender is quoting your quote and the (>) is a quote of part of your message you sent in reply.

Don't get hung up in quoting. After so many levels, all you end up with is a bunch of ">" and very little substance.

Most importantly, don't reply to an email when you are angry about its contents. Cool off first. Or if you must attack the keyboard while you are in the mood, at least store the message off in the draft folder for a while. You'll be glad you did.

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Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar

Use a spelling checker. Wea awl ocationaly slup adn mispell sumpthing. My most common mistake is "andt he". A quick spell check or read through will provide a more professional result. The computer should help us avoid sending our mistakes out to others. The mistakes will still happen but we should be able to cut down the number.

Watch the punctuation!!!

The exclamation point ! is the most overworked punctuation used in email. Use it seldom, if at all!

Don't go overboard in keeping your email short. Write complete sentences. One exception to this tip would be when responding to specific questions or comments.

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How Formal?

Know thy audience.

Should you use formal or informal writing in the body of your email? It depends on who is receiving it. Err on the formal side. Keep it formal if you don't know the person well or at all.

Salutations aren't really required, but you can use just plain "Marge" for informal, or "Mrs Simpson" for formal.

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Use of Abbreviations

BTW, IMHO, you shouldn't use abbreviations.

Should you use the common abbreviations and smileys in your message? A good rule of thumb is to not use them except in very informal messages to peers that you know understand them.

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Email Security and Privacy

Be careful what you send. Think of an email as a postcard that everyone can read aling the way.

Email is not private, nor is it secure.

Do not send an email that you wouldn't want your boss's boss to see, or you would not want posted on the bulletin board or forwarded to another person. Remember it has your name and email address attached. This even applies to online communities as there have been many instances where email sent to one person has done the rounds and resulted in major conflict and disintegration of the community.

All companies today have policies stating that email is for business purposes only. Assume that your emails are being read by a hall monitor - they often are.

And, nearly all companies are paranoid about liability because even if you delete an email, it probably still exists on your hard drive, on the server's hard drive, and on the server backup tape.

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