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E-mail Etiquette

by Carol L. Schlein, Esq.

As with any form of communication, it's important to be considerate when communicating by e-mail. Since the other person cannot hear the tone of your voice or see your facial expressions, it's even more critical to follow these guidelines.

Let the recipients know who you are. You always should add a signature block to the end of your message that contains your contact information. It's important for every e-mail message because the recipient may not know who you are and may be inclined to send your message directly to the trash. As author of this column, I receive a lot of e-mail from people I don't know. If they haven't included a clear subject with information about themselves, I may delete the message without reading it, thinking it junk. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to figure out who's sending an e-mail.

Your signature should include full name, title, company, phone and/or fax number and website. Try not to make the signature more than four lines. It's also annoying when the signature is too long and you can't easily find the information you're seeking. Some e-mail programs automatically add a signature while others require a few clicks. Some of the better e-mail pro-grams allow users to add several signatures, which is useful if one e-mail ad-dress is used for personal and business matters.

Use subject lines. Empty subject lines make people think they're receiving junk or virus-infected e-mail. Make sure the subject line is relevant, meaningful and explains what the message is about. Many recipients search their e-mail by subject. Skipping the subject line makes yours a candidate for the recycle bin. If you participate in an e-mail list, be aware many people use the subject line to follow the thread of an e-mail conversation and sort their messages by subject. If you change the conversation, you should start a new message or change the subject based on the new conversation. Remember, too, that people on Listserves regularly search archived messages based on the subject line. It is extremely frustrating to read through bunches of e-mail that aren't relevant to the subject being searched.

Keep messages short but don't make up your own abbreviations. There are many common abbreviations acceptable as e-mail shortcuts. Some common ones are BTW (by the way), FYI (for your information), and ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing). If you use uncommon abbreviations, you run the risk of confusing the recipient. Commonly used abbreviations like ASAP also are acceptable, but always consider your audience before abbreviating.

Use smilies to express emotion. Smilies are strings of ASCII characters included in an e-mail to imply the writer's emotions. During a conversation, we can sense the other person's mood by tone of voice, body movement and facial expressions. When writing e-mail, it's important to let recipients know you're joking if you in-tend something to be funny. Through use of smilies or emoticons, you can put a <G> at the end of a sentence to indicate a grin and let the person know you're joking. Keep in mind, too, that e-mail has a long shelf life and can come back to haunt you when used out of context. Remember Oliver North and his e-mail problems?

Overall, emoticons improve a message's clarity. They can be useful to clarify your message's tone, but they should be used sparingly. Many people don't know the meaning of all the smilies, so you should make sure you don't use one that could be misinterpreted. Two of the most common emoticons are :) which is a sideways smiley face and :( which is a sideways frowning face.

Pare down the message, but don't eliminate. Another often-irritating problem is receiving a response to an e-mail that doesn't refer to the topic you were discussing. Enough of the original message should be included so the conversation stays in context. Most e-mail programs will automatically show the original message below when you reply. If it's a long message, edit the original text so you don't end up with a huge message containing all the back-and-forth comments. On detailed messages, I often insert my answers between the questions, similar to re-sponding to interrogatories.

Also, don't start a new message when replying. This will break the link between the messages and it will be hard to follow the thread after several exchanges. This is extremely important when replying to newsgroups because several people will be replying to a message and following a thread of in-formation.

Keep the subject and context of a message in sync. There should be a direct correlation between the subject of your message and the content. Try not to branch into different topics. If you must write about entirely different subjects, consider a new message with the appropriate subject line or even editing the reply subject. If you keep messages concise, it will be easier for the recipient to respond without forgetting any-thing you might have asked or wanted to know. Many people these days receive numerous e-mails and prefer shorter messages instead of long stories.

Don't use fancy formatting. When an e-mail is composed of fancy fonts and colors, it can be very annoying to read and your recipient's e-mail program may not support it. What's the point of sending a message that can't be read? If the e-mail program doesn't handle formatting or HTML (hypertext markup language), the message will appear in gibberish. Another disadvantage to HTML code is these messages are more susceptible to viruses since the code can hide small programs within them.

TYPING AN E-MAIL IN UPPERCASE IS VERY HARD TO READ. Also, try not to add excessive punctuation. For example, an e-mail loaded with exclamation points loses the added emphasis the sender was trying to make. You also should be cautious about grammar and spelling. A message containing misspelled words and incorrect grammar can be befuddling and hard to read. Be sure to use spell-check and take time to proofread before sending. This includes double-checking whether you're responding only to the sender or to everyone included in the original message.

Avoid opening suspicious messages.You should refrain from opening a message if you don't know the sender or if it's a known sender but the subject looks fishy or it has an attachment you weren't expecting. This will prevent opening e-mail with a potential virus. If an e-mail has a suspicious subject, e-mail the sender and ask if you were sent a message. Taking the extra precaution can save time, money and possibly a computer. Many viruses will attack the e-mail program's ad-dress book by sending a message to every contact in it. Many times, the subject may fool you so be aware of new viruses and verify that you have updated your virus definitions.

Handle e-mail confidentially. Respect other people's privacy when dealing with e-mail. If someone sends you information by e-mail, don't assume it's public and immediately forward it to your 10 closest friends. E-mail is used for personal communication unless the sender makes it clear it can be shared. If you want to post somebody's ideas on a newsgroup or discussion group, verify you have their permission and you also should credit that person for his or her ideas.

If you're sending an e-mail to a large number of people, don't paste their addresses into the CC field of the message. You should use the BCC (blind carbon copy) field instead. If you use the TO or CC field, all recipients can see the other recipients' the e-mail addresses. By using the BCC field, they will see only their own e-mail address.

If you want to share something from a website, don't paste the text from the website into a message. It's better to refer to the website and give the link. If you paste the text, it restricts recipients from searching more information on the topic, limits them from knowing the exact source of the information and learning about a possibly good site, and may even violate the site's copyright.

Courtesy, courtesy, courtesy. Don't forget some basic courtesy. It's also important to make sure your employees also are following common courtesy. This will have a favorable reflection on your firm, especially with clients.

Using the appropriate e-mail salutation is very important. In business situations, it may be hard to judge whether you're being too personal or impersonal. If unsure, use the standard guidelines of a formal letter: "Dear Ms. Schlein" or "Dear Carol" until you know how the person would like to be addressed. It may be frustrating for someone to be called by a nickname when they prefer their formal name. Make sure you're aware how they prefer to be addressed before making any assumptions.

In the body of the message, be sure to include enough information, especially when asking for help. It's a waste of everyone's time to send several e-mails back and forth before getting to the main point of the original message. If you're asking for help, especially technical questions, include all relevant information. Also, don't for-get to say "please" and "thank you." It can make all the difference of the overall conversation by showing some good manners.

You should not expect an immediate answer. Due to an abundance of e-mail daily, recipients may not be able to reply to your message immediately. If your e-mail is urgent, you should flag it or place a phone call instead. If you don't receive an answer in a few days, send another message or call. The message may not have reached the person or the recipient could be out of the office.

On the other hand, be sure to answer someone's message. It is rude and unprofessional to avoid someone. If you aren't sure how to answer, at least let the person know you received the e-mail. If you'll be out of the office for more than a couple days and cannot read your e-mail, you should add an auto-reply message letting people know you're away and the date of return. However, don't use that auto re-ply to handle incoming messages from newsgroups. No one in the group wants a set of looping messages cluttering their inbox.

Finally, if you don't yet actively use e-mail, climb aboard. Get comfortable. It doesn't take a lot of time to learn the basics and the payoff is well-worth it when you can better respond to your clients' needs.

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