Email Did Not Come with a User’s Manual

Like many people I was first introduced to email in the early 1990’s. It all began when my brother, a faculty member at another university in the southeast, started communicating with me through university servers. This saved us both a lot of money on long distant phone bills. Okay, some of the conversation was not on education, but on catching up with family gossip. (Give us a break.) No user manual was provided to inform us that this might be not proper.   Neither of us owned home computers let alone had any awareness of email servers for personal use, like AOL.

It wasn’t until about ten years later that a shift in my career from teaching to advising greatly increased the volume of my professional email usage. Again, professional email did not come with a user’s manual. I was thrown into the water to sink or swim. I knew how to write business letters, but this mode of communication seemed different. The beauty of email was that I could respond to a student or an advisor question without much effort and in no time flat as if I was talking to them. Many times I did not reread what I wrote before pressing send. It was only when I needed to send out an announcement to a group or response to an administrator that I had someone critique my work.

Finally, after over twenty years since my first email, I found manuals on the art of writing emails! There are two very good books that I would like to recommend that are quick reads. The first is titled Email, the Manual: Everything You Should Know about Email Etiquette, Policies, and Legal Liability before You Hit Send, by Jeffrey Steele. The other (and the one that I will review) is Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to do better, by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe.

Send begins with the reasons to love email. One reason is exactly what I did when I began my email journey and that was/is I can reach almost anyone inexpensively. We all could list many more good reasons, but there are just as many reasons to wish we did not have it. Two such negatives would be that we can’t take the mistake emails back and there is a fairly permanent electronic record of emails.

What I liked most about Send is that the authors admitted that they have been guilty of bad email etiquette and provided actual examples of email that they have sent and received. They did more than just share bad examples with loaded phrasing. They demonstrated how to rephrase with a softened and mindful effect.

Here are some examples of loaded phrasing they suggest to avoid:

  • I can’t imagine why…
  • You’ll have to…
  • Is it too much to ask…
  • Why in the world…
  • It seems odd that…
  • Just curious, but…
  • Please explain to me…

One technique that I learned to soften the tone is to write as if I am the one at fault.

Bad example: Please explain to me why the procedure suddenly changed.

Good example: My recall is that the situation may have been handled differently in the past. Have I forgotten the procedure or did I accidentily overlook a memo changing the process?

As it turns out, Send is also an author-created acronym reminding us how to write a good email.

S=simple; E=effective; N=necessary; D=done

Emails should be simple and to the point. They should be effective in what they convey. They should contain only necessary information. Lastly, emails should contain a procedure that checks to see that a request is completed.

To summarize, “be mindful and think before you send.” “Send only email that you would like to receive.”

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