Tips For E-Mail Writers Who Care About Manners

September 3, 1997


What is the etiquette of electronic mail? It's an interesting question these days. It certainly hasn't escaped the arbiter of all things appropriate, Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, who tackles issues of courtesy in, among other things, e-mail use in her new book Miss Manners' Basic Training: Communication. She describes the challenge thusly: "Technology likes to play a catch-me-if-you-can game with etiquette. 'You don't have any rules for this,' it sneers, 'because we just invented it.' Then it goes tearing off into the future, laughing like crazy, under the cocky assumption that Miss Manners can't catch up."

Well, you go girl! I certainly welcome Miss Manners in this wild frontier of the Internet. Sure, folks might consider her presence an indication of the Net's inevitable stultification. As the poet/writer Charles Bukowski wrote, "As/the/spirit/wanes/the/ form/appears." The beauty and power of the Net is in its very formlessness. And what has more form than formality?

Still, Martin has always emphasized common sense and thoughtfulness over dogma. And that the Internet is anarchy incarnate is little reason to treat your fellow cybernauts uncivilly. I'm just disappointed Martin didn't devote more than a few pages to e-mail. She answers a few questions, such us how to reply to a congratulatory e-mail (answer: by e-mail), but she hardly delves into the nuances of the medium in a manner befitting her self-trumpeted arrival. The ultimate manifesto of e-mail etiquette remains unpenned.

So what are the nuances? To be sure, there are sources of such information on the Web (E-Mail Etiquette): that cover the basics: Don't write in caps, BECAUSE IT SEEMS LIKE YOU'RE SHOUTING. Don't spam people with your pathetic get-rich scheme.

But for those who have been around, this is the equivalent of instructing dinner-party guests not to eat the linguine with their hands.

Are finer distinctions needed? Who knows? Me, I define e-mail etiquette via a handful of maxims.

Respect The E-Mail Volley: I used to be of the opinion that a second e-mail shouldn't be sent until the other party has replied to the first. But alas, the Net is such an agreeable medium for those of us who have manic proclivities and who, always finding really neat Web sites that must be seen by half the Net populace RIGHT NOW, can't resist sending off short, rapid-fire bursts of e-mail with subject lines such as "Check this out!!" and "Man, check this out, too!!" and "Oh, you can't miss this, either!!!"

But for your more thoughtful musings, remember that it takes time for others to digest what you've written and to formulate a response, so don't overwhelm your cybercorrespondents with yet another theory on why Gilligan's Island was a metaphor for the human condition.

Do Not Send Formatted E-mail Unless You Are Sure The Recipient Has The Same E-mail Package: Changing your e-mail's typeface and background colors might be great -- if the recipient has the newfangled e-mail software needed to decodes the instructions your newfangled e-mail software encodes. If not, your fancy e-mail will read something like this: < bold>< color>< param>< ffff,ccccd,=9999,/param>< bigger>"< bold>Hello!< /bold> I am < italic>writing< /italic> you an e-mail!" < color>< bigger>" As Johnnie Cochran might say, "If HTML is what they see, then you must use ascii." (OK, so he might not say something like that.)

On the other extreme, use outdated e-mail software at your peril. Mailers that don't wrap lines or don't have backspaces are still among us. Using them in public invites flamage, as someone who sent a particularly mutilated post on the Pigdog mailing list learned when he received this sharp monitory: "What the HELL is wrong with your e-mail program!!!!!!!!? Fix this immediately before I dispatch an Aleutian to rage like Thor in your bunghole!!"

Never Click The Send Button When You Are Angry: Arnold Reinhold, author of E-mail for Dummies, recommended this wise idea. Nothing feels is as immediately gratifying as sending off a load of wrath at the appropriate party; nothing is quite as a humbling as to grovel for your job or loved one back the next morning. "Save the message overnight and re-read it in the morning before sending it out. This is particularly important advice for e-mail to your boss," Reinhold advises.

Make E-Mails Only As Long As They Need To Be: The great thing about the phosphorus screen is that it has no expectations about what constitutes an electronic dispatch's proper length. E-mail has gone a long way toward reacquainting people with the power of the written word. The printed press has created too many forums in which writing has no function other than to fill up space. In contrast, e-mail brims with immediacy because it can be short. "Gosh darn it, Harold, I left the Uzi back in Miami," or whatever.

This is not to say that rambling and digressing, stretching sentences to groundbreakingly long lengths and generally writing about everything under the sun can't be fun. But it's like S&M fun -- just make sure your partner consents. Otherwise, it sure can be painful.

What is the etiquette ofe-mailing? Itís still undefined, and hopefully will remain so as long as most Netters understand that good e-mail is made from a recipe calling for equal parts intuition and common sense. Even Miss Manners would find that tasteful.
--Joab Jackson



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