Editor's note: If you have a pressing business-etiquette question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.
Emily Post wrote, "The art of letter-writing is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a postcard." Clearly, even back in 1922, email and text-messaging were on the horizon, and
, etiquette writers like Post were among the first to notice.
With the pen being mightier than the sword, email is an effective business tool; many businesspeople spend the better part of their days using it.
Yet too many writers treat the sharp edges of their words with too cavalier an attitude. That's fine as long as relationships are trotting along, but when the pace or heat of the situation increases, sloppy use of email can undercut your bottom line. (Or so Miss Conduct has read -- mostly in forwarded emails.)
Whether it's done with a fountain pen or a keyboard, Emily Post's art of letter writing concerns both form (mechanics) and content (etiquette). These two do intersect, but the nuts and bolts of email usage are often mistaken for etiquette when they're really a matter of form.
Naturally, usage conventions will vary from industry to industry and are easily observed, mimicked and corrected via exemplary replies from your boss' emails.
For instance, some people write out a salutation, others rely on the "to" and "from" fields to address the reader. Follow the trend in your company and in your industry so that you set your readers at ease. It's that easy.
As for mechanical pet peeves, avoid the overuse of emoticons, proliferation of chain letters and virus hoaxes (check
Snopes.com before forwarding any) and, last but not least, putting addresses on long cc: lists where they are sitting ducks for spammers -- use bcc: instead.
However, email conventions are not as interesting as the deeper problem: the use of email to avoid -- or even complicate -- more personal contact. It's a mistake that can cost you dearly in your career.
Email borrows the form of a paper memo (now defunct, to the joy of our arboreal population). Therefore, it's the literary equivalent of business-casual dress. It's an informal, mostly declarative medium for communicating facts and gathering suggestions.
But because memos were once internal communiques, recipients had frequent meetings where face-to-face encounters created context and allowed for graceful correction, as well as social bonding and repair.
Today, however, business email reaches outside institutional walls, so the context for both style and social clues is missing. Email may be easy, quick and inexpensive, but then, so are most traps.
Humans being what we are -- that is, essentially cheap and lazy -- email has become a catchall, and therein lies the trap.
Email gets overused, and often it's the exclusive means of communication when a variety of media would be more appropriate to the task. In its most innocuous guise, groups of coworkers are reduced to bonding via forwarded jokes and YouTube antics instead of meeting face to face.
Now, collegial bonding is of paramount importance whenever communications are critical (and when aren't they?). So if email is all you have, then for business' sake use it as well as you can, keeping the exchanges as relevant, clean, amusing and polite as possible.
But far better to exchange double-entendres in person, via phone, VoIP like Skype or video phone links like iChat. The more personal communication you get, both back and forth, the better you'll understand each other.
Furthermore, any complex changes in schedule or budget, disclosure of critical information or some assignment delegations can be minefields for email communication. That's without even mentioning apologies to smooth over a mistake, unskillful speech or other interpersonal problem.
These tasks need to be conducted with more delicacy than the blunt instrument of a memo (even an electronic one) can supply. At the very least, follow up questionable emails with immediate phone calls so that any issues can be answered in real time, with tone and context in place.
When a call isn't enough, use the time you've saved via electronic communications to invest a little chronological capital in a face-to-face meeting. It may seem like a waste of time, but in the long run it's better than getting into a full-blown conflict.
Speaking of serious blunders, beware email's strong potential for inappropriate use, and even confidentiality issues. Because the goal of business etiquette is to set people at ease, you must never write anything in email which you would not want to see on the front page of cnn.com.
Include yourself here, both as author and subject. If you can conceive a time or place that such a disclosure would make you or anyone else uncomfortable, do not hit the send button. Read it over, editing as necessary to turn the tone professional, or else call or go see your colleague, to make sure your meaning is truly clear and appropriate.
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AskMissConduct.com. Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.com.