Twenty-First Century “E-tiquette” for E-mail: How to Look Like You Know What You Are Doing
by Leonard I. Frieling
Ten years ago, in explaining the importance of excellent e-mail etiquette, I wrote: "This may not seem important until the level of e-mail for an individual is more than two or three letters a day. An informal survey of people who are active online suggests that 20 to 30 letters per day is not shocking." As Bob Dylan sang, "The times, they are a changin’."
Depending on our spam filtering, many of us deal with hundreds of e-mails a day on our personal and work computers. These messages include everything from important, reasonable offers to settle cases, to client questions, to letters from [fill in the spam woman’s name]. The good news is that there are specific practices that we easily can incorporate into our e-mail behavior that will help senders and recipients deal with the volume of modern e-mail.
First, what does good e-mail look like? It is readable! That means clear typefaces, such as Arial or Courier, in larger — not smaller — fonts. It means black or dark font colors on light backgrounds. This is not a cryptographic challenge, after all. It is not a game won by determining which recipient can still read 4 pt. type. It is communication. A message sent must be received and understood, or there has been no communication.
A proper e-mail has certain attributes in addition to being easily read. It also is easily understood. "I disagree" with e-mails that contain the useless phrase "I agree." In my experience, most "I agree" e-mails do not contain the original text describing with what they purport to agree!
Yesterday, I sent someone two e-mails. One said, "All pedophiles should be freed from prison and loved." The other said, "I love the Denver Bar Association." I got a reply, "I agree!" Great. That tells me a lot. E-mail software (called "e-mail clients" for some reason) has a feature to permit reply e-mails to automatically include the message to which they are replying. Use it! In Outlook 2003, go to Tools > Options > e-mail Options > When replying to a message > Include and Indent Original Message Text.
Have you received one of those forwarded messages that has an attachment that has an attachment that finally leads to the forwarded message? Someone has set "When forwarding messages" to "Include original message as an attachment." That’s my idea of scatological programming. The proper option to be selected is "Include original message text."
We’ve all received e-mails that have been forwarded more than once. Sometimes, they end up pages long, with the message repeated ad nauseam. When forwarding, delete the repetition before hitting "send." Personally, I don’t care which 243 people were on the send list before I got it. And while I’m on the subject, those magic words, "before hitting send" are critical!
How many times have you hit "send," and then pulled the power plug from the computer, ripped out the phone line, smashed the modem/router and dashed the keyboard into the floor, hoping that the message would in fact never make it from the hard drive to the Internet for delivery? I have a stack of 17 smashed keyboards. Not once was I able to stop the message from being delivered. If I were programming an e-mail client (software, remember?), I would have an option as follows: Options > Sending Mail > Delay Upon Send > set the time from 10 seconds to 10 minutes. Alternatively, the "send" button could be in another room!
Finally, all e-mails (original message, reply or forward) must contain a signature block. In Outlook 2003, go to Tools > Options > Mail Format > Signatures. You can easily create signature blocks containing your name, address, phone, e-mail, fax and whatever else you want, and select which specific signature (you can create many) is automatically appended to an e-mail and to a reply or forward. This is quite important for e-mails posted to any of our many listservs (group lists, such as Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, etc.). When I post one e-mail to the CCDB listserv, I’m really sending about 500 individual e-mails at the same time. My contribution has to be pretty important to justify sending e-mail to 500 people. Are there not times when sending something to just the person who needs that answer is sufficient? If you don’t have their personal contact information, you cannot reply privately! Which reminds me, use your "Reply All" button sparingly.
Once your e-mail looks like what an e-mail should look like, content may be addressed. The single most important part of the content (assuming that you correctly typed the address) is the subject line.
In my opinion, which is never humble, an ideal e-mail says it all in a brief subject line. An e-mail from The Docket editors saying, "Docket meeting 4/4/07 noon 1900 Grant. RSVP," says it all. We are not really paid by the word. On the other hand, if we are more efficient, eliminating subtle (and not-so-subtle) time-wasters, we will make more money, with less effort. That sounds like a good thing to me!
Next Issue: Listserv E-tiquette and E-fficiency, and the helpful and proper use of :) emoticons <G>.
To contact Leonard I. Frieling, e-mail Lfrieling@Lfrieling.com.