Ready, Set, Send:
Your Jewish Fairy Godmother’s 10 Commandments for Email Etiquette and Sanity
We all depend on and enjoy email. But there are better and worse ways to use it. The
good ones make you look smart, help share ideas (also good jokes and weblinks), and
generally promote marketing and enhance your institutional standing. Bad email
etiquette can damage relationships and your reputation, and even cost you clients or
your job. Emailing looks simple but is a bad place to screw up.
Commandment Number 1: Know the rules.
Assume your company has a stated or implicit policy similar to this one: “Because of maintenance and other processes, non-work related email cannot be accorded
confidentiality. Non-work material of an obviously offensive nature should never be
stored or transmitted using company hardware or software.” Think about the last
hundred emails you sent or received. If the first word in your mind is unprintable
(“obviously offensive”) you need to read these commandments carefully and start
changing your work habits.
Commandment Number 2: Email knows no boundaries.
Anything you email can end up in the mailbox of anyone on the planet with internet
access at any time. (If you missed the infinite possibilities, read that again.) Even with
an explicit disclaimer on your emails (a good idea), they can be forwarded without your
knowledge. On a day you’re angry about a departmental decision, ready to verbally
throttle a co-worker or client, or tempted to call your supervisor a jerk, imagine the
expression on that person’s face when your nemesis forwards your email as part of
some “helpful” suggestion about changing office policy. You might never know. And
worse, if choice words get changed in your message along the way, your career could
take a left turn without a word being spoken. You can’t protect yourself from everything,
but before you send emails, try to remember you have absolutely no control of where
the message might go after it leaves your computer.
Commandment Number 3: Monitor email early and often.
Check your email first and last whenever you’re logged on. If you can monitor your work account from home, consider checking out what’s happening when you’re not in the office. You might not want work to intrude on your “real life,” but even an occasional answer or forward to your boss when you’re officially off the clock can create the illusion that you’re more diligent, 24/7, than you really are, though there is the danger of raising expectations. You don’t have to approach e-junkie status (one definition: if you can go as long between checking email as you can between meals, you’re on the safe side of the line.). Set your email to notify you when you get incoming mail. Staying in touch counts, and will be noticed.
Commandment Number 4: Know your place in the pecking order.
Check to whom the email has been sent. Distinguish between yourself as addressee
(the person who’s supposed to act and respond) and as cc (someone who’s supposed
to know what’s going on or to chime in, but not take over the conversation). CC, by the
way, comes from carbon copy, an ancient 19th century method of duplicating messages
on a typewriter. BCC means the sender doesn’t want other people to know you are in
the loop. If you have been bcc’d (“blind” cc) be especially careful about displaying too
much knowledge about what’s going on, either around the office or by inserting yourself
into the e-dialogue. Be especially careful to distinguish between replies meant only for
internal consumption and those you wouldn’t mind if a customer read. Be very careful
not to “reply to all” if there are clients on the list, unless you’re explicitly the person
designated to respond.
Commandment Number 5: Spam 101 – Nothing’s free in cyberspace.
Your email address can be harvested from various places, including virtually every URL
you visit. Every time you sign up for something “free,” you are inviting future truckloads of unsolicited spam. Your email address might be sold and resold, legally, or illegally even if you decline the free “future updates.” Assume everyone who buys your address will want to do one or more of the following: sell you something, improve your sex life, show you theirs, decrease your mortgage rate, offer you a chance to earn thousands of dollars weekly, or invite you to participate in international money laundering, all for a modest investment of your cash or credit card up front. Ask your computer tech to create some filters and rules to send the incoming spam immediately to your trash bin.
(Note: If you secretly want to read these messages, you can sneak off to the deleted
files and browse.) If you don’t have a way to deflect these messages, they’ll drown out
your real work.
Commandment Number 6: Be careful what you open.
There’s an old rule of teen dating: If it’s not yours, don’t touch it. That may be too extreme for adult email, but with chronic and imminent threats from viruses of all varieties, you should be almost that careful when you handle enclosures. Messages that come with attachments ending in .exe can wreak havoc by “exe”cuting programming that might literally take over your computer’s operating system. Those with .scr, .gif, and .zip are almost as dangerous. Update your virus protection regularly. Be very very careful about opening any attachments, even when you know the sender, because s/he may have already been virused and be looking for new hosts. . Set your own machine for partial downloads (this protects against incoming spam too) and advise others to do so. It may sound paranoid, but ask around. When you hear the horror stories of folks who’ve lost half the files on their hard-drive or weeks of valuable work to a virus, you’ll quickly become a believer.
Commandment Number 7: Spam 102 – Don’t spam others.
Email is a quick high. Everyone likes a good joke, wants to know the latest news, and
enjoys a pick-me- up on a dull day. But because you know what’s going on when you
send the email, it’s easy to assume that life on the other end is in real time, to believe
the recipient will be in the mood and have time for what you want to send. How do you
feel when you’re on deadline or running late, and open an email to find an out-of- date
urban legend, a giant .jpg of someone else’s vacation, child, or pet, or a bad-luck-
unless-you- forward-this- right-now chain letter? Don’t get a reputation as the office
spammer, the person whose emails get trashed because people see you more as a
source of junkmail than content. Have “personal” group of people you trust and whose
values are similar to your own. Especially with emails related to sex, politics, or intimate
aspects of your private life, be careful what you send where. (Remember Commandment Number 2: email knows no boundaries.)
Commandment Number 8: Start filing now.
If you don’t start soon you will be sorry. Email is like yeast. It expands while you’re not
looking. Create whatever filing system works for you. Assign folder names by project,
administrative, marketing, and technical matters, or by person, organization, topic, or
hobby. There are no rules. Practice good work habits. File your emails right after you
read them. If you’re not careful, or fall very far behind, you can easily end up with
thousands of emails clogging your system. It’ll feel like a gut full of too much pizza and
beer. Keep your system moving, even if it means an occasional cyber-flush to file and
delete, whether its daily, weekly, or monthly. Reward yourself when you’re done, but
pay attention lest you dump the wrong messages out of sheer tedium.
Commandment Number 9: Be worth including in the conversation.
Start dialogues that have value. When you see a problem that needs some attention,
use email to get the word out. Be sure what you have to say is worthwhile, but get on
record as being the one to say it. You don’t have to have all the answers, but asking
good questions will also get you noticed by readers who count. Include both co-workers
and supervisors in the e-conversation. Note: If you will be gone for more than a day,
arrange to have someone you trust monitor your email or use an auto-responder.
Knowing when you’ll read and reply matters to most people, especially if your input is
valued or impacts the next step they’ll take on a project.
Commandment Number 10: Send “later.”
Virtually all of us have had that horrific sinking feeling of having sent an email to the
wrong person. Of having said exactly the wrong thing to the wrong person. Avoid fear,
humiliation, and bad client relations. Know where the “stop sending”: button is, though
you have to be really fast to beat the computer. In extreme cases, you can simply yank
the plug from the wall (it”s cheaper to crash your computer than to look for a new job).
But get in the habit of saving to a draft folder, re-reading, and hitting the send button
only when you’ve double-checked what you’re saying to whom.
Does it sound like a lot to remember? It is. No one follows all the rules all the time.
Strive to create work habits that’ll serve as safety nets. They’ll insulate you from the
worst of your blunders or impulses. Follow these commandments and you’ll stand a
better chance of staying aloft in cyberspace.