Ask Lisa C. Tang about the most irritating e-mails she received as a psychology teaching assistant, and she's quick to respond.
"I got a lot of e-mails from students asking if they had to buy the textbook or even if they had to attend class," says Tang, a sixth-year student in clinical psychology at Michigan State University. "And students would often e-mail me with questions about information that was already on their syllabus."
Demonstrating such lack of understanding may be the most egregious violation of e-mail etiquette, but it's certainly not the only one. And the way you correspond electronically can harm — or enhance —your career, warns John Suler, PhD, author of the online book The Psychology of Cyberspace and a psychology professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. Although most students use e-mail effectively, he says, some need help learning how to make a good impression.
Fortunately, there's now an entire book devoted to the topic: Send: The Essential Guide to Email For Office and Home (Knopf, 2007). It offers many do's and don'ts, including:
Respect the niceties. When you're writing to professors, supervisors and the like, politeness counts. Use proper grammar, correct spelling and a tone of respect rather than slangy informality. With friends, anything goes.
Don't annoy recipients with outrageous requests. "Some students who miss a class ask the professor to summarize the whole class," reports Suler. E-mails that are overloaded with questions or multiple requests are also annoying.
And don't forget to identify yourself. "Some students send messages from personal rather than university e-mail accounts and fail to place their names at the end, which leaves the professor scratching his or her head," says Suler.
Make it easy for recipients. Since most people just scan e-mails, keep your paragraphs short and skip lines in between paragraphs.
"When I first started using e-mail, I'd write big, long paragraphs," says Tang. "I found that my respondents would often miss questions I had asked."
If you're making a request, make it early in the message and make it stand out: Give the request its own paragraph.
Don't expect an immediate response. Remember that some professors came of age in a different generation and aren't as obsessed with e-mail. "They don't check their e-mail constantly like I do, so they can take a few days to respond to a message," says Tang.
Give your recipients extra slack if you've sent your e-mail in the evening, over the weekend or during the holidays.
If you wouldn't want your whole department to read it, don't click "send." As many have learned the hard way, recipients often forward e-mail. That means your message could end up in the inbox of the very person you were just venting about.
Confidentiality is a special concern. At Tang's internship site, for example, colleagues use initials to identify patients and are vague about identifying details in case an e-mail goes astray.
Remember there are legal considerations, too. In addition to being easily forwarded, e-mail creates a permanent, searchable record of your correspondence.
Remember e-mail's not the only option. Just because you have e-mail doesn't necessarily mean you should use it.
If you've got a delicate problem, need to reach agreement on a thorny question or have a similar situation, a face-to-face meeting might be a better option. Because of the lack of visual cues and nuances of voice, e-mails can be difficult to interpret and easy to misunderstand.
And if the message is really urgent, remember that there's a device called the phone.
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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