Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online
4.2. What should I know about proper e-mail etiquette?
Truth be told, no one really asks this question, but I wish they would. Allow
me to climb on this soapbox briefly and share some uncommon sense about the
etiquette of electronic mail.
- Get your point across. Any message, electronic or otherwise, is
useless if it doesn't convey the right information. Think back to grammar
school and remember to include the five Ws: who, what, where, when, and why.
Make sure each element is present in your message.
- Put a meaningful subject line on your message. The subject line will
help remind the reader what the topic of discussion is. A bad subject line
doesn't give a clue as to the content of the message. Some bad subject lines
are, Send info., Stuff, and What Joe said at lunch. Better
subject lines are more descriptive, such as, Requesting info re:
WombatNet, Wanna hear a dirty joke? and Joe's comments on the
- Type complete sentences. Brief, choppy sentences are often nothing
more than incomplete thoughts and are vague and confusing.
- Be brief. No one wants to read a novel-length message.
Correspondents who read their mail on-line and are paying for the privilege
will resent having to read a long diatribe when just a few lines will do. In
less than thirty seconds, a reader will choose to delete the message, save it
for later, or continue reading. (This is actually a journalistic rule of thumb:
you have thirty seconds to hook the reader. If the first paragraph doesn't
excite them to read more, you've lost them and the rest of the article is
irrelevant.) Make those thirty seconds count.
- DON'T TYPE IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. It's not considered friendly.
Your corespondents are likely to think you're shouting at them.
- Proofread your mail before you send it. I couldn't count the number
of messages I've seen--and probably sent--that had meanings which were totally
obscured by a missing word or a errant typo. (Legend has it that one poor soul
used electronic mail to send a resume to a potential employer. The cover letter
said, "If you have any questions, please hesitate to call me." This is
bad.) Spelling is equally important. Many online services have some sort
of spell-checking facility. Find out if it does and if so, use it!
- Think before you send your message. Sending electronic mail is like
driving: you shouldn't do either while intoxicated or emotionally charged.
Consider the tone of your message and think about the content. If you're angry
at a corespondent, relax a bit before you decide to send a flaming missive his
way. You would be wise to follow the "Read it Twice" rule of e-mail: Read
through your entire message two times before you send it.
- Beware of the infamous smiley :-). I won't tell you not to use
smileys for fear of retribution by pro-smiley groups. I'll just say that some
of us are annoyed by smileys, believing that if something is truly funny or
ironic, happy faces aren't necessary. On the other hand, smileys serve as
important visual cues that would otherwise be missing in the writing, and it
takes a fairly good writer to be able to convey irony or satire to a wide and
diverse audience. (For more on smileys, see Chapter 11, "What Do I Need to Know
About Internet Culture and Lore?")
- Sign your name. Although every mail system attaches the sender's
name to the message, it's nice to see a proper sign-off to a
- If you compose your e-mail off-line using a word processor, don't forget
to save it in ASCII format before sending it. Many word processors include
information that on-line systems won't understand. By saving your messages in
ASCII format, you can be sure that when you upload it, it will be free from
funky control codes. (For instance, my version of Microsoft Word can use these
cool "smart quotes," but when uploaded to e-mail, smart quotes look Qlike
thisR. Pretty irritating.) The length of your likes is equally important.
The vast majority of Internet users have 80-character screens. On such a
screen, it is hard to read a message where each line is 95 characters long.
- Don't participate in chain letters or get-rich-quick schemes. Not
only are these an enormous waste of time and computer resources, you're likely
to lose mail privileges if the system administrator catches you sending them.
- Keep in mind that your recipient might not check his or
her e-mail regularly, or at all. Mail sent is not necessarily mail
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