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Etiquette helps smooth the quirks of e-mail

(Amy Weiner, senior Macintosh specialist at the Whitehead Institute, is the author of an article on e-mail etiquette that appeared May 5 in the Whitehead Bulletin and is adapted here with permission.)

People depend on e-mail communication both to conduct business and to stay in touch with people in the outside world. It is used for everything from quick notes to weighty communications.

E-mail has several quirks unique to electronic communication which may cause undue stress to those unaware of them.

Say what? The speed and convenience of electronic mail sometimes mask the friction that can crop up when using it. It is all too easy, for instance, to fire off a reply without first reading what you wrote. It is helpful to take time to make sure a message will be understood, rewriting it if necessary to make it more clear or less inflammatory. E-mail messages may be taken more seriously by the recipient that by the sender.

When you speak to someone face to face or over the phone, changes in your tone of voice and gestures help convey your mood. These audio and visual cues are missing with e-mail, although some conventions have come into use to help replace them:

--Words in upper-case characters are read as if you are SHOUTING. Unless you intend to yell, use lower-case characters. Also if you mean something as a joke, say so. You can do that by typing "(joke)" or "(grin)" or "(kidding!)" to indicate your mood as well as your literal message.

--On the other hand, a message typed completely in lower-case characters looks informal to some folks, but hard-to-read to others. Capitalize sentences and proper names to cover your bases.

--Smilies (also called emoticons) only work if the recipient knows about them. If you want to indicate emotion in a message, it is better to be explicit. When telling a joke, you should say so (as well as adding a smilie, if you like).

Remember that most e-mail is intended as private communication. Keep your password to yourself. If you use e-mail on a shared machine, make sure to completely disconnect when you have finished using e-mail. Also respect the privacy of others when it comes to mail. If you are in a position to read over someone's shoulder, do not do so without that person's permission.

E-mail is considered as valid a form of communication as a memo on paper or a message on your telephone. As such, normal business courtesies should be observed. Messages should be phrased politely and written with respect for the recipient.

Messages without subjects are easy to lose in a long list. To help others reply to your message, be sure to give them something in the subject field to help identify your mail.

You should reply to e-mail in a timely fashion. Even a reply stating "I'm busy and won't be able to look into the matter for a couple of weeks" will help your correspondent schedule his or her time. If you are waiting to receive a reply from soneone, be patient. Keep in mind that not everyone is connected to mail all day long.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 24, 1995.

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