There is no question that advances in technology--especially in terms of the Internet--have made it easier and faster to exchange information with individuals throughout the world. Unfortunately, it has also come at the price of letting traditional social graces and good judgment fall by the wayside in our haste to make friends, pitch ideas or seal a crucial deal. Here is what you need to know about using email wisely in both your personal and professional life.
Monsters in Cyber Space
The Internet has given birth to a malevolent new breed of villains that fall into two categories--those who want to harm your computer and those who want to harm you. The ones who want to destroy all of the data on your system do so through fast-acting viruses attached to emails which either tempt you with an intriguing hook in the subject line ("Congratulations! You've just won the lottery") or pretend to come from someone you know ("Hey! Did you get my message about lunch next week?"). What is so insidious about the latter is that, on the surface, the sender appears to be legitimate but, upon opening the email, the receiver is then instructed to click on a link which will rapidly unleash electronic destruction. Emails that purport to warn of problems with a bank account, a security breach at PayPal, or any type of criminal investigation soliciting the receiver's immediate attention and cooperation should always be regarded as suspect. The other type of cyber villain lurks in chat rooms, soaks up personal information from blogs, and is a regular visitor at Facebook, MySpace, and websites associated with dating. Because of the anonymity that the Internet provides email users, you have no idea if that cute guy you have been writing back and forth to--and edging closer to an actual date--is really a Harvard graduate, works for Merrill Lynch, and drives a Porsche or is a sleazy con artist who preys on trusting women and is about to hit you with a sob story that involves giving him access to your home and/or your credit cards.
Inappropriate Use of Office Equipment
Once upon a time, it was assumed that most employees possessed the common sense not to yak on the company phone for hours with their friends, pilfer office supplies for home use, or use the Xerox machine to make multiple copies of the novel that they may or may not have been secretly writing during working hours. What became problematic, however, was that on the occasions it came time to fire someone for stealing a credenza or using the postage meter to send out bills for a home-based business, the accused employee's easiest defense was, "Oh, I didn't know I wasn't allowed to do that." This gave rise to more and more companies developing procedural manuals identifying in strict terms what is and is not appropriate conduct. The Internet, of course, figures prominently in many of today's guidelines. Sure it seems harmless enough to pass along an email joke, exchange casual gossip, or suggest that maybe the boss is a clueless rube. Such communications, however, are not only wasting valuable time, but could become subject to subpoena if the company is ever involved in a lawsuit. Further, an email from parties unknown could be carrying one of those aforementioned viruses and put the company at significant risk.
Confidentiality is often at jeopardy when we choose to communicate with one another through the medium of email. Unlike a letter that can be locked away or even burned after reading by the intended recipient, email correspondence can accidentally or intentionally be accessed by a third party. This is especially detrimental in the work sector if the content of the email pertains to confidential data, patient/client records, or information regarding the financial stability of the company. Security is also jeopardized if, for instance, an individual provides credit card information or a Social Security number in the context of an email note to a vendor rather then entering the data via a secure website.
Because email feels like such an informal, laid-back forum for chatting with people, they will often extend that same level of breezy familiarity to total strangers and then wonder why they get the cold shoulder. A good example of this would be aspiring authors who want to pitch their novel to an editor at a publishing house. Unlike the olden days when such pitches always took the form of hard-copy letters that were snail-mailed along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, many publishers have come to recognize that electronic queries not only kill fewer trees but also enable them to process the daunting load of submissions much faster. What instantly turns them off, however, is the chatty email that starts off "Hi, Emily" as if the sender has known Emily for years. Considering that she probably wouldn't know Emily if she passed her on the street, it is arrogant to assume that an email introduction is an instant door to friendship or that the sender can divulge personal information that is well outside the boundaries of professional protocol. Until such time as the recipient invites you to use her first name, it is always wise to err on the side of formality. It is also prudent to format the letter on your computer screen just as you would a letter that was going to be printed out and mailed. This means saving the freaky fonts and smiley icons for the friends and family who already know you.
Spelling Out the Window
In keeping with the informal nature of email exchanges and instant messaging, it seems to have given many people an excuse not to proofread their content for spelling and grammar mistakes. "Oh, it's just an email," they say. "It's not like anybody really cares or has the time to catch every little thing." What they fail to consider, however, is that email is a reflection of the pride--or lack thereof--that they take in their own work. Since you never know how many people in addition to your intended recipient are going to see it, it would behoove you to make sure that it's as error-free as possible before you hit the send button.
It is a sad commentary about our society that so many people use the anonymous nature of the Internet to send cruel, hurtful, and vicious emails. The fact that they can adopt "faceless" personas through multiple email accounts has given them the ability to hide their true identities behind fake monikers and unleash rants that they would probably be too embarrassed to say in person. Therein is a word to the wise about using email at all: if it's not something you wouldn't be willing to own up to in a face-to-face conversation, it probably shouldn't go into an email, either. For more tips on email etiquette--as well as advice on keeping yourself safe in an electronic medium--visit the links listed at the end of this article.
Last but not least, email has impacted our desire and our ability to communicate with one another through actual face time. Instead of arranging to meet a friend for lunch and catch up, it has become less of a hassle to just e-chat. Instead of picking up a telephone or writing out a greeting card, it has become more convenient to just send a email blast. Even thank you notes for a gift or a lovely dinner have become supplanted by instant messages. What is most disturbing, however, is that the younger generation has become more comfortable conversing through a keyboard than interacting with others in social situations. This, in turn, will have a negative impact on their verbal skills, body language and self-esteem. After all, if you can assume any identity you want on the Internet, there is no reason to work on figuring out who you really are as a person.
Ghostwriter and film consultant Christina Hamlett has written professionally since 1970. Her credits include many books, plays, optioned features, articles and interviews. Publishers include HarperCollins, Michael Wiese Productions, "PLAYS," "Writer's Digest" and "The Writer." She holds a B.A. in communications (emphasis on audience analysis and message design) from California State University, Sacramento. She also travels extensively and is a gourmet chef.