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Electronic messages can be confusing and spin out of control

Weird, wired world demands good e-mail manners

A top company executive, who shall remain nameless, came close to getting fired for an e-mail he sent to his boss. The boss was furious about the e-mail.

But when the executive went into the office of his boss and said the same thing face-to-face that he’d said in the e-mail, the boss better understood the message that was

intended and was no longer offended.

There is no doubt that e-mail is an extremely useful business tool.

It can take less time than a personal meeting or a phone call, and provides something to refer back to for details if there is any confusion about what was said.

But e-mail can also be a problem.

Without the clues that you get from a personal meeting such as facial expressions and voice intonations, people can misunderstand. Sometimes what is meant as humor

can be taken as an insult instead.

Then there is the problem with e-mails that are meant to be sarcastic and derogatory. People will say nasty things in e-mail “bombs” that they would never say to a person

face-to-face. Some organizations have found venomous e-mails to be such a problem that their etiquette guidelines for e-mail address the issue.

Some of those etiquette guidelines include “praise in public, criticize in private.”

It is also recommended that humor or sarcasm be labeled as such. Don’t assume everyone knows it’s just a joke. And, for truly private or sensitive discussion, it is better

to meet in person or use the telephone.

R. Paul Maxwell, corporate communications manager for Hancock Bank, said e-mail etiquette is important enough that the company has not only established guidelines on

it, but includes e- etiquette as part of training sessions. Employees are also taught etiquette for voice mail and fax communications.

Guidelines developed by Maxwell include, “If you wouldn’t say it, don’t e-mail it,” with a reminder that forwarded e-mails can travel around the world — and to your

supervisor’s mailbox.

Other Hancock Bank guidelines include using a salutation that includes the addressee’s name, and using the signature option to indicate your name, title, department,

phone, fax and e-mail address. Employees should avoid copying supervisors or management on unnecessary messages and should use judgment in distributing large

attachments. Another piece of advice is to never hide behind an e-mail to deliver bad (or extremely good) news to an employee or colleague.

A common complaint about e-mails is the trend towards a relaxation of spelling and grammar rules. People send hastily written messages that contain a lot of typos and

other errors, perhaps giving the impression they are just too busy to take the time to cross the T’s and dot the I’s. Hancock Bank and other companies with e-mail policies

recommend adhering to grammar and spelling rules.

“Personally, I think it is very important to compose your e-mail as you would any other written material,” said Kurt Brautigam, spokesman for Mississippi Power

Company. “I think it is a reflection of how well you write and communicate, so your punctuation and grammar ought to fit the usage. And it can be different for personal

use as opposed to business use. With personal use, there is more room for less formal composition. As a communicator, I try to make sure my business communication is

professional. I don’t worry so much about personal e-mails.”

Brautigam said while e-mail can be an economical and efficient way to communicate, there is no reason to be lazy with writing skills.

Another common problem with e-mails is the forwarding of unwanted e-mails that waste the company’semployees’ time.

“The latest e-mail from a friend promises a huge payoff, free clothing or even good health for the coming year,” said Emmette Hale III, associate vice chancellor for

information technology at the University of Mississippi. “All you have to do is to forward the message to eight friends within 48 hours. It takes only a few seconds, so why

not give it a shot? Hold on before you click that mouse. The best choice is simply to delete the message and spare your friends the chore of doing the same.”

Chain letters have been around for decades, and most recipients toss them right into the trash. Hale said many e-mail scams and hoaxes are nothing more than high-tech

chain letters that rely on people’s gullibility about things they see on the Internet.

“The Internet and e-mail have become just like junk mail,” he said. “I get all these things, too, and I just delete most of them without ever reading them.”

Besides chain letters, e-mail users also should beware of get-rich-quick schemes, phony merchandise offers and, even worse, computer viruses that can slow down their

computers and even destroy valuable data. Because of extensive media publicity about malicious viruses, many users have learned to avoid them, but many popular e-mail

hoaxes continue to make the rounds.

“For example, there’s the story that America Online and Microsoft are ‘beta testing’ a new e-mail tracking software and asking users for help,” Hale said. “The pitch is

that the company supposedly will pay users every time they forward the message to a friend, and every time those friends forward it to their friends. The real catch is that

the whole story is fiction. Ditto for the story about free Disney vacations or free clothing from The Gap.”

He adds that the U.S. Postal Service is not considering a 5-cent surcharge on e-mail, so there’s no need to protest to Congress. There is no child dying of cancer who is

raising money for the American Cancer Society via e-mail, and there is no epidemic of HIV-infected needles stuck in movie theater seats. And there is no flesh-eating

virus being spread through bananas imported from Costa Rica.

“It’s a waste of resources, and it’s just junk,” Hale said. “The best thing to do is just throw it away. Delete it, and get rid of it.”

Several Web sites track reports of new Internet hoaxes and e-mail viruses.

Another thing that can waste time is overuse of forwarding, or writing long messages that people don’t have time to read. It is a good idea to strive for easy to read


Be brief, condense your messages and target only the audience that is most likely to benefit from the message rather than sending it to a large list just because that is so

easy to do.

Other recommendations include covering just one topic instead of several in a message, avoid glaring colors and avoid “shouting” in capital letters.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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