E-Mail Tips & Tricks

In their book 'Connections: New Ways of Working in the Networked Organization', sociologists Lee Sproul and Sara Kiesler discuss experiments they designed to compare the efficiency and social dynamics of people making decisions in face-to-face meetings with those of people making decisions over a computer network. Sproul and Kiesler found that the groups making decisions electronically had far greater difficulty reaching consensus and ended up taking more extreme positions than the face-to-face groups did. Even more surprising, the on-line groups frequently got caught up in violent arguments, with members exchanging nearly ten times the number of rude remarks that their face-to-face counterparts did. The on-line behavior got so nasty that the researchers halted one of the studies; participants in one of the groups became so infuriated with one another that they had to be escorted out of the building.

Welcome to the brave new world of electronic mail, that exciting new medium that is supposed to make communication smoother. Most people who are “on” E-mail are dazzled by what they consider its advantages over other methods of communication but they remain oblivious to its shortcomings. It makes sense then for people who are “talking” on-line to be aware of the ups and downs of electronic communication.

Advantages of E-mail

One of E-mail’s chief virtues is that it is asynchronous—information can be exchanged without the participants having to interact at the same time. Eliminating the need to communicate in “real time” speeds up the flow of information by overcoming two of the drawbacks of the telephone: You never get a busy signal when you send an E-mail, and you never find yourself playing “telephone tag” with someone who happens to be out when you call.

A second advantage of E-mail is its speed. In seconds you can send messages, indeed entire documents, across time zones. You can respond to messages in seconds as well. The speed of E-mail allows people to work at great distances from each other and still communicate effectively. It lets people telecommute, giving them more flexibility in their schedules and sparing them the distractions that gobble up so much of the work day in an office.

Another benefit of communicating by computer is its variability. You can communicate in a multitude of forms, from one-on-one personal communication to corporate memos and electronic distribution lists. Being able to contact large numbers of people with a single act represents an enormous increase in efficiency. You no longer have to print and photocopy a document and then see that it is hand-delivered to the individuals on a mailing list. Using E-mail, you can distribute a document to any number of people instantaneously with the click of a mouse.

Many people maintain that E-mail is a more democratic way of holding a discussion than the face-to-face meeting. Because E-mail eliminates the visual trappings of social status and position that are apparent to everyone in a face-to-face meeting, it allows people at various levels in an organization to participate as equals in a discussion. People at higher levels are less able to dominate a discussion. For this reason, ideas that are proposed on a computer network tend to be evaluated on their merits more than their origin. Moreover, because discussions tend to focus on the question at hand, there is less opportunity for social posturing and other forms of unproductive “talk” than in face-to-face meetings.

The final advantage of E-mail is psychological. It can nurture a sense of connectedness and commitment in people who see that they are actively involved in a discussion, whether with family members, friends, strangers who share certain interests, or coworkers.

Well, then, if E-mail is so wonderful, and people feel so connected, why do they get so angry with one another?

Disadvantages of E-mail

Unfortunately, many of E-mail’s virtues can also be drawbacks. While it is true that electronic communication has a wide variety of forms, each of these has its own requirements that the user must try to be aware of in order to avoid saying something inappropriate or incomprehensible. A variety of forms means a variety of audiences, some of which may include nonnative speakers of English, who may not understand American idioms or allusions to American culture.

E-mail discussions may be more democratic than face-to-face meetings, but equality of communication can increase the number of suggested solutions to a problem, making it more difficult for participants to reach a consensus. If disagreements arise, there is usually no one in charge to referee. Debate can degenerate into a verbal brawl.

Since the participants in an E-mail discussion can be neither seen nor heard, social cues are absent, making it easy for people to make injudicious remarks. It is hard to remember what sort of audience you are addressing when all you can see is text on a screen. There is no one sitting around a table. You cannot see people’s clothes. You miss their facial expressions and cannot tell what tone of voice they are using.

Because it is so hard to size up the social situation, it is easy to say things that can have unwanted consequences, especially when people are responding spontaneously to a communication. Impulsive replies can be unduly harsh, flippant, or defensive, and they often provoke other impulsive responses. The sending of an irate or rude message has been common enough to have been given its own name: flaming.

In fact, E-mail is little more than a ticker tape of words, and electronic messages are therefore subject to a variety of interpretations. Indications of interest or agreement, positive remarks, or even compliments that we easily interpret in face-to-face meetings can be construed as sarcasms when said in E-mail.

E-mail has other disadvantages. Among them is information overload. Many E-mail messages are irrelevant or redundant. Communicants often “copy” people that don’t really need to be involved in the discussion. This practice tends to overburden people with messages and to retard the flow of productive information.

There is no easy solution to these problems. Restraining yourself from making an impulsive response is not always possible in a busy workday, nor is it always desirable to stifle the spontaneity of your remarks. But as an insurance policy against a potential disaster, it seems a good practice to consider whether you would utter your remarks in a face-to-face meeting, and if not, why not. You must always do your best to ascertain who your audience is and to anticipate how your remarks may be taken.

Forms of E-mail

Audiences vary, of course. Electronic communication has a variety of forms, each with a different structure and different requirements.

  • standard E-mail In this format, a user can communicate with a single correspondent or with a group by exchanging messages across a computer network. Communication is asynchronous—each user has an electronic mailbox, either in a personal computer or in a central computer to which terminals are connected. Messages are stored in the mailbox until the user accesses them.
  • bulletin boards This E-mail format provides asynchronous forums for group discussions. Users can post messages, comments, questions, or responses that can be saved for or broadcast to participants. Many groups like to list FAQ ’s (frequently asked questions) about the subject, along with responses, as an introduction to the group’s interests.
  • chat rooms These are electronic meeting places where groups of people sharing a particular interest can hold a conversation. Chat rooms are not asynchronous—they take place in real time. As many as two dozen people can talk at the same time, with messages overlaying one another on the screen in a visual version of “room noise.” Because the discussions can only take place sequentially, participants often find themselves lagging by several lines. They may respond to one remark only to find two or three other responses, or even entirely new topics, have appeared on the screen in the meantime. In this way, responses can appear without context and can get lost in the noise.
  • Because the immediacy of chat rooms resembles that of speech, they are the most informal of all modes of electronic communication. Because of their relative formlessness, chat rooms may be the least efficient way of using your computer to communicate.
  • Informality

    Because certain forms of E-mail are characterized by a rapid give-and-take that resembles conversation, they tend to be more informal in tone than conventional print writing and the more institutional forms of electronic messaging, such as corporate reports. In fact, these conversational E-mailers have developed a variety of practices to sustain an informal tone while at the same time saving keystrokes. E-mailers commonly use contractions and abbreviated expressions. They often omit pronoun subjects, as in don’t know for I don’t know, depends for it depends, and glad you asked for I am glad that you asked. Another common practice is the use of “eye dialect” spellings, as in gonna for going to, gotta for have got to, and thru for through. Many people use acronyms to stand for commonly used expressions or to indicate attitudes and emotional responses. These acronyms are usually capitalized. Here is a selection of commonly used E-mail acronyms:

              Acronym           Expression      
                BBL           Be Back Later     
                BFN           Bye For Now       
                BRB           Be Right Back     
                BTW           By The Way       
               FWIW           For What It’s Worth     
               HSIK           How Should I Know
                IAE           In Any Event
                IMO           In My Opinion
                IOW           In Other Words
               JFYI           Just For Your Information 
                LOL           Laughing Out Loud 
                NBD           No Big Deal     
               NOYB           None Of Your Business     
                OIC           Oh, I See     
                OTL           Out To Lunch 
               OTOH           On The Other Hand     
              PMFJI           Pardon Me For Jumping In     
              ROTFL           Rolling On The Floor Laughing     
                TIC           Tongue In Cheek     
               TTFN           Ta Ta For Now     
               TTYL           Talk To You Later     
                WRT           With Respect To
                WTG           Way To Go     

    Other conventions add keystrokes in an attempt to capture some of the nonverbal clues and body language that allow speakers in a face-to-face conversation to recognize sarcasm, facetiousness, disbelief, dismay, and other attitudes. E-mailers have an affection for punctuation that would seem unorthodox in most print communication. E-mail tends to have more exclamations than the more deliberative printed letter and consequently the exclamation point crops up frequently, often in clusters to show astonishment or disbelief. Trailing dots are a favorite too, indicating incompleteness of thought, dissatisfaction with a train of thought, or an assumption that the reader can extrapolate what is implied. To give a message special emphasis, an E-mailer may write entirely in capital letters, a device E-mailers refer to as screaming. Some of these visual conventions have emerged as a way of getting around the constraints on data transmission that now limit many networks. Underlining, for example, does not travel over some networks, so E-mailers sometimes emphasize a word or phrase by enclosing it in asterisks.

    Perhaps the most famous of all visual conventions are the “emoticons” or “smileys” that people use to summarize emotions. Here is a selection:

    Emotion      Emotion      
      :-)        Happy     
      :-(        Sad     
      :-<        Very Sad or Upset     
      :-O        Shocked or Amazed     
      :-D        Laughing     
      ;-)        Winking     
      :-|        Bored or Uninterested     
      8-|        What next!     
      8-O        Extremely Shocked     
      :-]        Smirk, happy sarcasm     
      :-[        Grimace, sad sarcasm     
      :-}        Grinning     
      :-\        Undecided     
      :-#        Sealed Lips     
      :-&        Tongue-tied     
      :-I        Hmmm     

    Reader Expectations

    Accompanying the general tendency of E-mailers to be informal is the tendency of readers to be more forgiving than readers of printed material. Since so much E-mail is a simple substitute for a routine telephone call, its quick brief messages are mostly ephemeral—there is no point in saving them, in styling them carefully, or in being concerned with the niceties of their grammar. Where a misspelling in a printed letter leaves many readers concluding that the writer is a slob or a dunce, the same misspelling in an E-mail message hardly makes a difference to the readers. They assume that the writer must be too busy working or having fun in cyberspace to bother with spellcheckers and dictionaries.

    These different expectations can liberate us from many of the more stodgy conventions that can make print communication slow, stuffy, and even tedious. But they can also lead us to inadvertent rudeness, levity that seems disrespectful, or the appearance of indifference to our readers.

    It is too early to tell whether the informality of E-mail will begin to influence the way we write on paper. Certainly, bad spellers will hope that the more forgiving attitude of E-mail readers might spill over to print readers. It is more likely, however, that people will start clamoring for law and order on the wild frontier of E-mail and will insist upon incorporating in electronic English many of the conventions that regulate Standard English in print. Not to be tied down, many E-mailers will undoubtedly resist and become outlaws. The ephemerality of most electronic messages makes standardization irrelevant.

    Still, it is important to remember in all of this talk about informality that E-mail is really a medium that can be used for a whole spectrum of rhetorical situations and not a brand of English that is noteworthy chiefly for a small set of hip stylistic conventions. It is easy to get entranced by the novelty and the speed of electronic communication and to think of it more as a playground than as a city full of varied neighborhoods. As a writer you must always keep your wits about you and be street smart.

    It is also important to remember the virtues that traditional written communication has to offer: the opportunity to shape a piece of writing into something worth saving and the chance to move a reader by the careful arrangement of words for their cumulative effect. A formal occasion like an important business communication, a job application, or a serious personal letter has its own special writing requirements, whether you send it as a hard copy in the mail or as a series of blips over a cable. The informal chatter we like so much is not really suitable for every message we might send by E-mail. Everything has its limits. E-mail is no exception.

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