Courtesy – Electronic Style
Most people would never think of ignoring a question asked by a customer or colleague over the phone or in person. However, many people do so when the same question arrives via e-mail or voicemail. Nor would you shout or snarl at someone face-to-face, but when sending a message electronically, it is so easy to do so.
Many companies have guidelines for responding to or handling electronic messages, but these guidelines are often not disseminated or frequently ignored. It is not unusual for people to use the excuse, “I didn’t get the message/e-mail,” as a method of explaining their lack of response when finally caught. However there are some simple rules to follow, for keeping on top of and correctly handling your messages.
There is a reason for courtesy–it is not just meaningless form. Courtesy is the lubricant in the social machinery. Like it or not, we are dealing with people every day, and courtesy is what keeps our interactions running smoothly. We would not run a motor or gearbox without lubrication, nor should we handle our personal interactions without the liberal application of good manners. Courtesy for messages–whether e-mail or voicemail–can be summed up as consideration and responsiveness.
The ‘To:’ field is for people who are directly involved and from whom you need a response. The ‘cc:’ field is for people who need to be informed, but do not necessarily need to respond.
Use conventional punctuation. It was developed to make the written word easier to comprehend. ALL UPPERCASE is considered shouting, while only lowercase is difficult to follow.
Always include a descriptive subject line in an e-mail, and preface a voice message with a (very) brief introduction. This allows the recipient to understand immediately what the message is about.
Use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ as you would in conversation. Remember the ‘lubrication’ issue above…
E-mail and voicemail are professional communications–be more courteous in your language than you would be in person.
Do not send broadcast messages. No matter how proud you are of the office soccer team’s great win, do not send those 5 Mb of photos to everyone in the company. Send messages only to those people who have involvement with the content.
Do not send inappropriate messages. If in doubt, do not send it. Remember, e-mail is forever. Anything you send can be forwarded or printed, and is stored somewhere. In addition, e-mail can be subpoenaed. Voicemail is also easily forwarded.
Although e-mail is a great way to document or inform, it is a poor substitute for live contact. This is especially true if what you have to say is sensitive, or when you are angry or upset. It may seem easier to send that unpleasant message impersonally, but it is not better.
Use spell check. Most e-mail programs can be set to check the spelling automatically when the message is sent.
Do not use voicemail when you are eating or in an ‘inappropriate’ location. It is amazing what sounds a cell phone can pick up in places like a restroom…
E-mail – respond within 48 hours if you are in the ‘To:’ list. The same applies if you are in the ‘cc:’ list and have something to contribute. There is nothing worse than making a decision, only to discover a previously-unknown factor in your inbox three days later.
Voicemail – respond immediately if a response is required. Even if all you say is that you are looking into their inquiry, at least the sender knows you are acting on their message.
Electronic communications are wonderful time savers and can greatly improve our efficiency. However, we should not use them to become disconnected from our colleagues and customers. Use e-mail and voicemail to enhance our personal communications, not to replace them. Remember that you are dealing with people, so be nice.
Freelance writer Dan Davies can be reached at [email protected]