Enjoying Your Work
Guidelines for e-mails have become more formal
When e-mail started becoming a common method of communication in the early 1990's, people needed to develop guidelines for the appropriate sending and receipt of messages.
Many of the early suggestions for appropriate e-mail use reminded me of what unruly students in a cooking class might do. The image that went though my mind was that the students combined flour and water, kneaded the resulting dough, and then threw it against the wall. Some of the dough would stick, and some would fall to the floor.
The development of e-mail norms went through a similar process. Guidelines for appropriate behavior were suggested and tried out. Some stuck and became part of everyday e-mail use, and some suggestions fell by the wayside.
Early suggestions were that e-mail messages should be quick and informal. People were told that they should not worry about niceties such as punctuation, spelling, and capitalization of proper names. One reason for this suggested set of norms regarding informality was that e-mail was originally viewed as a supplement to old-fashioned mail with its elements of stationary, envelopes, and stamps.
The thought that e-mail would merely be a supplement did not have a long shelf life. By the mid 1990's, many people were carrying out the majority of their correspondence through cyberspace.
I first realized that I was not receiving much traditional mail when I was no longer able to collect postage stamps for one of my mentors. During the 1970's and 1980's, I could send him a package filled with international stamps approximately once every six months. Since 1995, I have been able to do this about once every two years.
With the increasing use of e-mail, norms became more formal. Recipients of e-mail would have no other impression of senders than the content of the messages. As a result, senders realized that to make a good impression, they had to be careful.
Positive impressions include coming across as well-educated, articulate, and conscientious. This meant that the dreaded rules from people's elementary and high school educations had to be dusted off. Good spelling became important, especially as they learned that different recipients had "pet peeves" concerning the spelling of certain words. Similar care had to be put into issues such as capitalization, subject-verb agreement, punctuation and vocabulary.
As software technology for e-mail improved, other considerations demanded attention. The forwarding of messages is very easy. So if people write a message, they have to be prepared for the fact that it can be forwarded to dozens if not hundreds of others. Almost everyone I know has been caught in a "forward to many others" embarrassment. They criticized some people in an e-mail message and used colorful language while doing so. The people being criticized had the message forwarded to them and were not appreciative of the sentiments expressed.
Or, a message sender had the intention of saying something positive about other individuals. But because the original message was not well constructed and could be read in different ways, people receiving the forwarded communication interpreted it in the most negative way possible.
Another feature of e-mail that can work against senders is that it is so fast. If people receive a message that stimulates negative emotions, they can write an angry reply and send it out before they have a chance to calm down. This has led to a good piece of advice that bosses now share with subordinates. Upon receipt of a message that might lead to an angry response, wait a day. Then, reread the message carefully. The original negative emotion may have been due to a careless initial reading.
Even if a firm and somewhat unfriendly response is appropriate, people will be able to formulate their message in a more socially skilled manner if they wait until the have better control of their emotions.
The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.
is a professor in the College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the College Relations Office at email@example.com