Etiquette of email: Inbox blunders that are easily avoided

Sarcasm and emoticons aren’t the end of the world, but careless replies are

WHILE consumer email traffic is set to slow over the next few years, the 108.7bn emails business users will send and receive each day in 2014 is just the start, according to Radicati projections. Indeed, most of us use email so regularly that we’ve largely mastered its quasi-informality, having learnt any unwritten protocols the hard way or otherwise. Yet given that email’s impersonality can easily lead to misunderstandings, and we never seem to be more than a few days from another reply-all storm, brushing up on your netiquette is probably worthwhile. Here are four things to avoid.

Sarcasm “is one of the toughest problems in computing,” University of Southern California professor Shrikanth Narayanan told the Wall Street Journal in 2012, reflecting on the difficulties faced by marketers in gaining useful insights from the internet’s most confusing users. But meaning the opposite of what you say won’t make life any easier for the recipients of your emails either. Recent research in the Journal of Personal Social Psychology found that 97 per cent thought email sarcasm would be detected by recipients. In the subsequent test, however, only 84 per cent of sarcastic comments were actually picked up. While hardly totally damning for barbed irony on the web, adopting a neutral tone may be best.

One solution to the problem of carrying meaning over the internet is the emoticon. Aliza Licht, senior vice president of communications at Donna Karan, has even invented her own – the (*S) – to signal to her Twitter followers when she’s being tongue in cheek. And surprisingly, there may be a business case for emoticons, based on the way emails tend to be perceived. “When an email is objectively positive, the receiver thinks it’s neutral. Neutral emails are often perceived as negative,” says Jane Sunley of business strategy firm Purple Cubed. A smiley face could reassure your correspondent that you’re actually happy. But avoid winks or crying – in fact, anything you wouldn’t do in the office. Emoticons are still widely derided as unprofessional.

There are countless reasons you might instantly regret a message sent in haste – from unguarded comments, to misspelling someone’s name, to sending it to the wrong person. But David Gitkos of Global Digital Forensics says you should forget using the email recall function. You may “put a red line through it on the receiver’s screen, but once someone receives it, it’s there, they have it.” Recalling an email will simply draw attention to your original mistake, and sending a gushing apology would have a similar effect. So what can you do? Getting it right first time is obviously a good idea. But otherwise, try to ignore the email and wait for any reaction. Given the quantity of messages many receive, your mistake may not even be noticed. And if you really want to apologise, do it to your boss first.

It happens to the best of us. Last week, a well-known economist suffered a distribution list malfunction that led to any replies to his initial message being directed to everyone on the list. A minor problem snowballed, with distinguished recipients’ requests to be unsubscribed themselves being sent to all subscribers. So-called reply allpocalypses have been known to bring down servers, lead to summary dismissals, and damage reputations. If you’re caught in one, it’s best to do nothing.

However, such storms reflect a wider problem: many of us do not pay sufficient attention to who we’re replying to. Have you ever carelessly replied only to the author of that last message, not those who were copied in? Have you unnecessarily copied in people who have no interest in your conversation, thereby wasting their time? If so, maybe it’s time to reassess how you use email: less fire from the hip, more considered communication.

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