President's Column

E-mail has changed how we communicate and, perhaps even more importantly, the people with whom we communicate. My own inbox is a jumbled mix of messages from family (both the family members I'll see in an hour and those 3,000 miles away); listservs (some with restricted membership, others with unknown numbers of members, and still others that I seem unable to go AWOL from, no matter how hard I try); and colleagues, friends and strangers all over the world (many in languages I don't speak and some that tell me about millions of U.S. dollars waiting for me in Africa if I send them my bank account numbers). I can't recall life without e-mail.

Like most advances, e-mail also involves taking two steps back. My portable, handheld what's-its-name is tethered to me so that I can send and receive e-mail almost everywhere. I am always in touch, or, put another way, I can never escape.

The instantaneous quality of e-mail means that I can reply in haste and regret my reply at my leisure. I always find spelling mistakes ("typos") and grammar errors ("grammos") posthoc, just after pressing send. Unlike phone conversations, e-mailed hard copies linger on someone's hard drive and never seem to crash when you want them to.

Some tips

So I have established my own personal guidelines for better e-mail living. Feel free to steal those you find useful.

  • Avoid cutesy names for e-mail accounts like Names like these do not project a professional image, and they are bound to disappoint anyway.

  • When posting or responding to a listserv, be sure to leave some time between writing and sending so that any heat-of-the-moment flaming can dissipate.

  • If you are not e.e. cummings, capitalization--and grammar--basics are usually a good idea.

  • Not every topic belongs on e-mail. Complicated topics are even more complicated when they are discussed on listservs because simple misunderstandings can become massive misunderstandings in moments.

  • Just as there is no such thing as "off the record" when talking to a reporter, no e-mail is confidential. Copies might reside on remote computers (as they do at my campus), and even erased copies can be restored by an expensive forensic consultant or a techno-smart high school kid.

  • Status, emotions, formality and nonverbal cues are lost in e-mail communication. A comment that would easily be interpreted as a friendly joke can seem like a nasty remark when it is stripped of the accompanying smile, so choose your words carefully.

Potential misunderstandings

In a phone conversation, the natural give and take of a conversation means that misunderstandings can be cleared up immediately, but the shorthand of e-mail, combined with the delay between questions and responses, make fertile breeding grounds for massive misunderstandings.

Stripped of its usual context, e-mail communication can be ambiguous, permitting recipients to assume that the intended meaning is whatever they expected it to be. If you are exchanging messages with someone you distrust or dislike, an ambiguous message may be assumed to be more hostile than it was intended to be, and even an amicable joke can come across like a stinging insult.

Listservs should come with warnings similar to those on cigarettes: Misunderstandings increase exponentially as a function of the number of people on a listserv. Messages sent to listservs can be dangerous to your self-esteem and reputation when you unwittingly "reply to all," then cringe when your private message inspires <ROTFL> (That's "roll on the floor laughing" for the acronym-deprived.)

On the plus side, people who are shy at speaking have found their voice in the silent world of e-mail. I correspond as readily and freely with colleagues around the world as I do with those around the corner, making my own day-to-day world international. I keep in touch with friends with whom I would have long ago lost contact. But, a medium that most of the public has been resisting for a very long time is poised to overtake traditional e-mail--video e-mail.

So, now in addition to all of the above, we have to look good to send and receive e-mail--Now that's an idea I can live without! (Did I forget to mention not to shout?)