CANOE Network

The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Think before you hit 'send'

By Linda White
Special to The Sun

It wasn't the first time Jeff's client had missed a deadline, but this time, the project he had been working on for weeks was at risk. He whipped off a stern e-mail. Too stern, perhaps. Its harsh words upset his client, who forwarded it to Jeff's manager and demanded an apology.

With the split-second touch of a "send" button, Jeff put an important business relationship at risk. But this is just one example of the caution we must exercise when using electronic mail.

"When you're reading an e-mail, you don't have body language or tone of voice to help you interpret the message," says Karen Mallett of the Civility Group and The Etiquette Ladies in Winnipeg. "When you're writing an e-mail, watch your tone. If you wouldn't say it on the phone, don't say it in an e-mail. If it's a sensitive topic that might make someone feel uncomfortable or might be misinterpreted, pick up the phone."

Nor should e-mail be used to discuss confidential information, warns Karen Brunger, Director of the International Image Institute in Toronto. "Don't include sensitive or confidential information in an e-mail. It can be deleted easily, but can be printed off just as easily, forwarded to others and kept as a record."

Keep your message concise and to the point. "E-mail needs to be written like a memo -- short and sweet, but not abrupt," Mallett says. "You should still include words like 'please' and 'thank you'. Attachments can be more detailed and formal."

Be sure to answer all questions in an e-mail reply and take the time to pre-empt further questions by providing relevant information. If you provide the same information over and over again -- such as directions to your office -- save them as response templates and paste them into your message as needed. But address each e-mail personally, beginning with a greeting.

Use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation and read your e-mail before sending it. "People think they don't have to pay attention to spelling and grammar, but it needs to be there and that includes upper- and lower-case letters," Mallett says.

Don't forget to make your subject line meaningful, as it allows the recipient to prioritize and file their e-mails. Include deadline information in the subject line. Use abbreviations and emoticons such as the smiley :-) sparingly. "Cutesy symbols and e-jargons like LOL for 'laugh out loud' are not professional," Brunger says.

Don't overuse the high priority option. Just like the boy who cried wolf so many times no one answered his plea for help when he really needed it, the same is true for e-mails.
  • Keep your message concise.
  • Do not discuss confidential or sensitive information.
  • Use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation.
  • Do not use capitals -- it's interpreted as shouting.
  • Include a meaningful subject line.
  • If a reply is necessary, do so promptly.
  • Add contact information and disclaimers.
  • Do not overuse the high priority option.
  • Do not copy or forward a message or attachment without permission.
  • Do not forward chain letters.
  • Never reply to spam.
  • If doing a mass mailing, use the Bcc: field, not the To: or Cc: field.

  • "When the high priority option is used all the time, the person receiving the e-mail will start ignoring it," Mallett says. "One day, something really will be urgent and they won't pay attention to it."

    Experts disagree

    Not all etiquette experts agree on whether to reply to an e-mail by clicking the "reply" or "new mail" option. But remember, leaving the original mail in your reply makes it easier to track your correspondence.

    When sending an e-mail mailing, don't place all e-mail addresses in the To: field. Instead, use the Bcc: field. "You may not want each recipient to know you've sent a mass mailing," Brunger says. "At the same time, you want to respect each person's privacy. They may not want their e-mail addresses shared with other people."

    Don't forward chain letters. "I think people are still really confused about spam and when to delete it," Brunger says. "Sometimes it sounds legitimate and you pass it on to others, but that's inconsiderate. We need to make our e-mail time more efficient ... If you don't know whether to send it, ask yourself if it's something you would mail or phone about if you didn't have e-mail. If the answer is 'Yes,' then send it."

    Finally, if your company doesn't already have one, consider creating an e-mail policy and ensure each of your employees understands the value of e-mail etiquette.

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