Email has been the bane of my existence for a long time, but today I got one that really burnt my cookies. So I’ve decided that it’s time to change the entire world with a rant — as if! Email had its start as real physical mail, in messages we wrote to one another on real paper, made of real trees. We wrote with proper courtesy and respect and then carefully sealled our message on paper in envelopes, sometimes with wax, and paid to have them delivered by horse and rider, steamship and train, to whomever we wrote. Now cynical people call it snail mail. Sure it comes slowly but let me remind you what a delight it is to receive a real handwritten letter or card from someone far away or just across the city delivered to your home by a real person, often wearing shorts and featuring nice legs and a smile.
Now, with bytes and fiber optics we can have our thoughts and feelings delivered in microseconds. No human hands actually touch our message. No one holds it up to a candle and tries to decipher its contents. No one crumples it, or drops it in a mud puddle. Email is becoming devoid of humanity. It’s delivered instantly, only passing through email scanning software looking for security secrets and moral misconduct. While technology changed, why is it that the ethics and ritual of message writing disappeared? Why don’t we take time to think carefully through what we will say, review it to make sure that we aren’t misunderstood, and that we are respectful, kind, and courteous. What’s happened? Is it that the world has reached such speed that now we feel that the fine art of message writing can be dispensed with in lieu of the schlock that is sent around today? Sadly many people have done away with even common courtesy in letter writing. As Dave Barry says, ‘people have become too rude to even give you the finger.’
There should be some kind of licensing body that revokes people’s privilege to email if they can’t uphold certain standards of politeness and respect. Recently I opened a email to discovered enough bad manners and thoughtlessness to make a pedestrian being splashed with mud from a passing car in spring seem like they were receiving the citizen of the year award. Let’s go over some of my do’s and don’ts of email etiquette.
Filling out the little boxes
The TO Box
The ‘To’ line is there to list people for whom the message is addressed and from whom you would like a response. Do not list everyone and their dog in the ‘To’ line unless you do want a response from everyone and their dog. The dog may not actually write, and neither will most of the people you list. It’s like crying wolf now. “Just another email from blah blah. Probably doesn’t need a response but it’s hard to tell.” Appropriate examples: Invitations to a party requesting RSVP, working with a group and needing feedback. Inappropriate examples: chain letters, announcements to which you expect no reply, chain letters, telling people something for information only, chain letters. Not that chain letters were ever a good idea. From when I was 10, I’m still waiting for my free car and quickly delivered large sum of money ; I followed those instructions carefully so that an asteroid wouldn’t land on me out of nowhere. Remember the more you use the ‘To’ line incorrectly, the more people will think of your messages as chain letters… DELETE, or worse yet they’ll just slowly slip down to the bottom of the list until it isn’t even worth consideration.
The CC Box
The ‘CC’ line is there to list people to whom you want to send your message FOR INFORMATION ONLY, numb nuts. Don’t put them in the ‘TO’ line. Get it? Just like a real letter when you use to list the cc’s at the bottom of the page. The message is NOT to them, it is for their information. They may or may not respond. Don’t expect them to if you put their name in the CC line and for god’s sake don’t phone them up and berate them out for not responding. Yes this has happened to me. It’s like being called up and yelled at by a credit card company whom you don’t deal with because you threw away there offer for an instant $10,000 debt.
The BCC box
This line is here so that you can send your well-crafted notes to others without anyone knowing except the receiver. This didn’t exist before unless you consider making a copy of your message and then sending it along to someone else without the original recipient knowing. Today this is very useful if you are sending out one message to a bunch of people but you don’t want them to know who else you sent it to. Get it? DON’T share people’s email addresses with a bunch of people they don’t know, use the BCC line to protect everyone.
Put the person’s name or names that you’re writing at the top of the message, just like before with paper. It’s really easy, for example if you are writing me, you would type the letters P a u l then put a comma. Isn’t that nice? Now when I get it I’ll know that it is for me and not for … say… J o h n. Get it? The greeting, what great way to start your message, and you can even embellish it by using nice words like Dear, as in Dear Paul. You can even use informal greetings like Dearest sweetheart, or Heya Stud, or Lovely Friend. See how this works? Simple. You’re almost there.
The Message Body
I could and well may go on at great length about the message body. Here are my suggestions. Don’t assume that the reader will know what you mean. Don’t assume they will be neutral when they read your message. You have no idea what they had for breakfast or what mood your message will find them in. You really don’t want your message open to interpretation. You can’t afford to dispense with tone. The tone of your message is actually 50 percent of the message itself, if not more. If you are feeling good about what you are writing, SAY SO. If you are not happy, or confused, or puzzled, or over joyed make it clear. Be very clear and polite, otherwise the reader will impose their mood on your note and presto, you WILL be misinterpreted, and you may even create anger, resentment, or hostility. Which means that in spite of modern electronics and speed, your message actually will not get delivered, instead you will have created a pile of beetle dung that you will have to clean up, unless you can get the dung beetles themselves to roll it away. So be clear, don’t assume, and be polite. If you are not sure you’ve got it right then sleep on it. Don’t send because the send button is right in front of you, seeming drawing you to it, flashing and jumping up and down. That exhilarating feeling of completion you get from pushing the send button will be overcome by the stench of the dung pile you may create by sending prematurely.
The Sign Off
For heaven’s sake, when did emaillers start to think that it was okay and even favourable to SKIP saying goodbye or even tell you who they are. It won’t kill you to be polite and sign your name, most likely first name. For example if your name were Kate, you would type the letters K a t e. Easy peasy. You can embellish this by adding a little something in front of it, like ‘sincerely’, ‘yours truly’, ‘respectfully’, ‘cheers’, or even ‘kiss my ass’, depending on the tone of the note. Makes sure the tone of your note and your sign off are congruent. Get it?
The Signature Line
I suppose that this is where my rant continues and ends. I recently received an email that contained, in giant 36 point font, the person’s first and last name, followed by their position with the organization, their address, phone number, and fax number. Remember letter writing 101. The typewriter’s font size is the SAME… all the way through. What does it say about you if you write a message in 10 point black font, and then have your name dumped in at the end without a sign off in 36 point font in fire engine RED. Duh! Not rocket science. It says… incompetent twit, with a self esteem problems which may stem from either a giant ego or an inferiority complex. ‘Inferior about what?’ you ask yourself, even though you’ve long suspected. If you really want to think of this as your signature, look at your signature on a real letter as an example and decide how much bigger it is than the font the letter’s written in. In your email, if it is too much bigger than your letter example it will appear like you have absolutely no idea what you are doing but just want people to think that you are important.
The Marketing Line
At the very bottom of many messages you’ll find a little marketing phrase, or a quote or some other message that has nothing at all to do with the message. A few weeks back I received a note that broke all of my rules and then in addition to that, at the very bottom, right after the ginormous electronic signature in orange Palomino, was an itsy-bitsy, tiny-weeny, four-point font reminder to be kind to the planet, to think before you print. What about being kind to the people you send the message to I asked myself, aren’t they at least as important as the environment? How come this marketing line tagged on at the end was one kazillion times smaller then the name and title? How come it isn’t congruent to the tone of the message. Ridiculous. Don’t do it unless it is meaningful.
That’s it. Those are my rules… but wait, there is one more thing. Please never say… ever ever ever… “please contact myself.” It just plain makes me nauseous.
My challenge today is to write a real note, on real paper, to someone that you were recently thinking about. If you get really fancy seal it with wax. Send your note or hand deliver it yourself. Let me know how it goes.