Golden Rules of E-Mail
E-mail technology has solved many business problems but it has also created some etiquette dilemmas as personal and business users rely on it more and more. Below are some points to remember about how to make good manners and high technology work together.
Words can be harsh. People e-mail so casually it has become almost like speaking. But remember, e-mail is more formal than a conversation and less formal than a letter. In a face-to-face conversation, a tone of voice or facial expression can soften the words. Be extra-gentle in your e-mails. Or use "emoticons," such as the smiley face :) or the grin sign to indicate what you said was meant as a joke.
Not everyone cares about your life. Many programs, such as cc:Mail and Outlook Express, give you the option of sending a return message to just the person who sent it or to everyone who received the original message. If you are simply replying to say you will attend a seminar, the other 100 invitees probably do not need to know. Make sure you have the "reply to sender only" option checked.
A picture is worth a million words. One photograph, saved as an electronic document, takes up as much memory as a long report. It's nice to let your clients know you have a new office. But if you attach a photograph of it to your e-mail, it could take precious minutes of their time to download and view it.
Some people don't want you to reach out and touch them. CPAs generally are not bombarding people with "spam" — that is, unsolicited e-mail. But keep in mind that some people are particular about what they receive. Even if you send a simple weekly or monthly tax update, put a note at the bottom giving recipients an e-mail address to respond to if they want to be removed from the mailing list. And remember: an e-mail just to say "thank you" is annoying and unnecessary.
Remember that your computer is stupid. If you type "Locust Street" instead of "Locust Avenue" on a letter, the post office will probably deliver it correctly anyway. But a one-character error totally disables an e-mail message. When sending a message, double-check your recipient's address. Log in again an hour after sending to see if you got a non-deliverable error message. When responding to an e-mail, most programs will allow you to click on the sender's address and add it to your address book so you don't have to retype it and, possibly, introduce an error.
E-mail is not a fact of life — yet. Many people have e-mail addresses, but some don't check their mailboxes. Don't assume that, because an e-mail address appears on a business card, your new client regularly reads his or her e-mail. To avoid confusion, make sure your recipients are comfortable receiving e-mail.
Security is more than a new program. Many business users have bought new software and hired consultants to make sure no one can steal their confidential online messages. Then, with a click of the wrong button, they send a corporate salary list to the entire Chicago office instead of just the CEO. E-mail errors may not be more common than paper errors, but they can be more spectacular. Double-check your formatting. Never mind hackers — check to see who already has access privileges to the entire system. And if you're not familiar with a new system, ask someone for help.
Your company e-mail isn't really private. Don't make the mistake of thinking that nobody else can read your e-mail, especially if it's personal. Your firm or company's system administrator can likely access any message you send, even those you've deleted. And something you send in jest could be viewed as offensive by someone else. Don't send anything that could come back to haunt you.
Note: If you have some other suggestions for e-mail etiquette, please send them to Journal senior news editor Richard Koreto at firstname.lastname@example.org .