Eph lays down laws on e-mail

It’s no secret that most students are utterly reliant on e-mail. By simply clicking the “send” button, people can correspond with others thousands of miles away. However, the speed and convenience of this form of communication can actually pose a problem, not a benefit, to those who don’t use e-mails properly. In an increasingly electronic world, e-mailing will inevitably remain as a critical mode of communication, so what boundaries should apply? What are the rules for this relatively new kind of communication?

The structure and formality of a letter changes according to the recipient, and vocal tones adjust to different conversations – so why should e-mailing be any different? If e-mails have indeed become such an integral aspect of people’s lives, then it’s equally essential to understand the intricacies of this online communication. To outline the dos and don’ts of e-mailing, David Shipley ’85 and Will Schwalbe recently published Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, their one-stop book of e-mail etiquette. The Record was able to catch up with Shipley to see if he had any tips.

“On the one hand, e-mailing is absolutely fantastic because you can reach people faster than you could ever before; but on the other hand, it means more people can also reach you,” Shipley said. “The speed and access of e-mails break down barriers, which makes [e-mails] sloppy.”

E-mails often are careless. After all, spell-check isn’t a problem when people are communicating via telephone. But when people take e-mails for granted and treat their online correspondence as an actual conversation, it can lead to all sorts of trouble with misunderstandings.

“[The fact that we are using e-mail] is something we forget, maybe because e-mail happens so fast that we somehow delude ourselves into thinking that we are having real-time conversations with people,” Shipley said. “When we remember we are on e-mail, we remember that e-mail has no default tone – you have to insert one.”

And the thing with e-mails is that they don’t disappear. Spoken words are ephemeral, but e-mails can be saved and even passed around.

“We also remember that e-mail is virtually permanent, searchable and archive-able,” Shipley said. “What you say on e-mail . . . can also be forwarded around the globe in the blink of an eye.”

A heated rant can be easy to ignore, but the same doesn’t apply to e-mails. Because e-mails have become increasingly informal, people forget that the spoken word versus words written and sent in e-mails have drastically different consequences.

“Anger and e-mail don’t mix,” Shipley said. “The speed and ease of e-mail combined with our impulsiveness when we’re angry lead us to write – and send – things we’re bound to regret later. Think of it this way: when you’ve written an angry letter, you have ample opportunity to tear it up. There are plenty of opportunities for your super ego to kick in. With e-mail, there’s that note you write really fast and then there’s that send key – and that’s it.”

Sometimes the speed of e-mailing also makes it easy to forget that the exchange isn’t a real conversation. Informality is acceptable with friends and peers, but it’s a whole different matter when casual e-mailing crosses over to correspondence with professors and other authority figures. People change the way they write letters as addressees change, but the same doesn’t seem to be true with e-mails, according to Shipley.

“It’s tricky because e-mail flattens the world,” Shipley said. “Because it’s so easy to reach so many people, it’s really easy to assume a kind of informality that may not be warranted. I can reach someone – therefore I know them. I see this every day. I get heaps of e-mails from people I’ve never met that begin, ‘Hey Dave!’, or worse.”

Overly informal e-mails aren’t the only problem, as there are many other faux pas when it comes to online correspondence. It’s evident that people need to tailor their e-mails to fit the recipient, but what are the standards of e-mail etiquette?

“Before you write an e-mail, make sure you understand your relationship to the person you’re writing,” Shipley said. “Are you applying for a job? Are you writing to a professor? Are you writing to a pal? It also helps to remember why you’re writing. Are you asking for something? Providing something? Or just reaching out? I e-mail hundreds of times a day. Sometimes it’s for work; sometimes it’s social; it’s hard to remember to shift gears.”

Interestingly, despite all the hype about e-mail, this technological innovation hasn’t been around for that long, even if it does seem like ages ago when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fell in love via the medium in You’ve Got Mail. As a result, there isn’t the same set of solid rules and structures to e-mailing as that of snail mail. As electronic correspondence becomes further entrenched into our world, it might be helpful to think and pause before clicking that send button.

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