E-mail Etiquette

Playing It Safe

The process of sending and replying to messages is rife with opportunities for error. Here's how to make sure the appropriate message is sent to the right person.

  • Keep it blank. When composing a message to send, leave the "recipient" field blank as long as possible. By doing so, you will prevent a premature sending of your message. Even if you accidentally hit the "send" key or click the "send" icon, your message will go to no one. Once you are satisfied with your message, select your recipient and send.

What about an e-mail reply? When you reply to a message sent to you (as opposed to composing a new message from scratch), your e-mail package will take the original sender's name and make it the recipient. Therefore, the "recipient" field will be complete even before you start typing the text of your reply. You could, of course, delete the recipient's name on replies.

  • Check how you are replying to messages. Most e-mail packages allow you to include the sender's original message in your reply. This type of reply method is called "reply include." It makes it easier for the original sender to remember what you are replying to. Also, you may be able to specify who should receive your reply, specifically:
  • only the original sender ("reply to sender")
  • everyone who received the sender's message--that is, all the other original recipients, plus all the carbon-copy recipients ("reply all")

If you wish to avoid embarrassment (or worse), pay attention when sending a reply. Do you disagree with a message that was sent to you and dozens of others? Then be sure to "reply to sender" rather than "reply all." Otherwise, your reply will go to all the original recipients, making your private disagreement public.

There are generally four options for sending a reply:

  • Reply to sender (no include)

*Reply to sender include

  • Reply all (no include)
  • Reply all include
  • Use the "unsending" message option when necessary. Some e-mail packages allow you to unsend, or "take back," a message you have sent. This feature provides a measure of safety. However, not all e-mail packages have it, and even those that do allow you to unsend your message only under certain conditions. Therefore, you're still far better off sending an appropriate message in the first place or not sending one at all.
  • Understand the out-basket function. To save telephone costs and time, many e-mail packages allow you to compose and read messages offline. When you are offline, messages you want to send are usually placed in an out-basket. This feature is handy; however, be sure you understand how your package handles out-basket messages when you connect. Will your package send your messages automatically as soon as you connect, or must you send each message individually?
  • Use e-mail appropriately. Although e-mail is convenient, some formal situations still warrant using standard mail instead of e-mail. Don't use e-mail to terminate someone or when sending a letter to someone against or by whom legal action might be taken.
  • Keep security limitations in mind. Think of e-mail as an electronic postcard, and write your message accordingly. You have no idea how your message gets to your recipient or who could be reading it. In fact, if you misaddress your message, it could end up being read by a network administrator.
  • Remember that deleted messages may not be. Many computer systems are backed up to tape for security reasons. Therefore, even if you delete an incoming message, or a copy of an outgoing one, that message might still exist on a backup tape somewhere. Think carefully before sending messages.
  • Be careful with file attachments. The "file attachment" feature of e-mail allows you to send data or programs to a recipient rather than just message text. Most e-mail packages that support file attachments do so via one of two standards: MIME or UUCODE. When sending a file to someone, it's a good idea to find out which standard he or she is expecting. Otherwise, your file may appear on their system as unreadable garbage. If that person doesn't know, ask to talk to their network or systems administrator.

Attachments can cause other problems, not the least of which is the risk of your computer becoming infected with a virus. To protect yourself, refrain from opening files as attachments. Instead, save the attachment to disk, then scan it with antivirus software first.

  • Use message history logs. Some e-mail packages allow you to monitor what happens to e-mail messages you send via a history log. This log keeps track of the time and date you send your message as well as when (or if) your recipient reads your note, if they forwarded it, or if they deleted it. This kind of message history is more likely to be used in internal e-mail as opposed to external (to the Internet) e-mail. Still, a history log could be useful in protecting you in disputes over who said what and when.
  • Forward e-mail from lesser-used accounts. At times, you may have more than one e-mail account. For example, as a consultant, you would naturally have an account through your own company. However, if you were spending a lot of time with a client, you might also have an e-mail account on your client's system. Rather than checking both systems for incoming mail, consider forwarding your mail. Then, messages to you at your own system would be sent automatically to you at your client's system without additional effort by your sender.
  • Answer your e-mail. Incredibly enough, many companies fail to do so. What kind of impression does this make on potential customers? If you are unable to answer as quickly as you would like, ask if your e-mail provider supports "autoresponding." With this function, when someone sends you an e-mail, your system automatically replies with a form message thanking them for their message and giving whatever standard information you wish. Obviously, this option is less desirable than a true reply, but it at least lets your sender know your e-mail address is valid. If you are unwilling to do either, stop publicizing e-mail as a way to contact your company. Do it right or not at all.

E-mail can be a tremendous productivity tool. However, be sure you use it correctly so you convey the most professional image possible.

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This article was originally published in the September 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: E-mail Etiquette.

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