Keyboard Courtesies

Minding Your Manners on Email Becomes Increasingly Important as More of Us Take to the Ether

by Kathleen Scalise

Everyone knows not to belch at the table, but not everyone knows using email the wrong way can be just as crude.

And when it comes to people getting worked up over email, Ella Wheaton of the Staff Ombuds Office has seen it all.

Wheaton says she knows when there's been an email problem the moment a staff member crosses her doorstep.

"People walk in with files this thick," she holds her hands five inches apart. "They don't even have to tell me what the problem is, I already know."

It's an email shootout.

"We're like the pulse here," said Wheaton. "These days, email is becoming a very serious issue for us because it's a powerful mode of communication that can create relationship problems, conflict and, in some circumstances, even liability."

For issues that have emotion behind them, "email or voice mail or any electronic mode is not the best," said Wheaton. "It can lead to what I call electronic warfare: response, reaction, response, reaction. I have seen some major mistakes at the touch of a button."

She especially encourages people to talk when supervising and not use email to keep their distance.

Or "you may just be trying to communicate with your staff because you're in a rush, but the employee starts to see it as being documented," she said.

"Staff see email as documentation. Staff feel compelled to respond because you're creating a record, whether you intend it or not. I have also seen staff compile extensive documentation on their managers, both with and without their knowledge."

Thus email takes on an unintended formality. Or sometimes the formality is intended, but it just makes for bad relations.

One staff member having problems with her boss described it as "no communication, just a lot of nasty notes going back and forth." For her the situation improved when her employer stopped firing off a slew of email marked urgent five minutes before it was time for her to head home for the day.

Whatever the situation, people can feel stressed under constant bombardment by email.

"Nobody would write me a letter, edit it, sign it and send it through campus mail asking me the kind of questions I get all day long on email," said one staff member.

"In many ways, email makes it too easy to communicate."

It also makes it easy to pass along someone else's words inappropriately.

A pet peeve is forwarding email without asking.

Especially provoking is when email is edited, then forwarded. Sometimes phrases are taken out of context, but the original signature is left in place. People are outraged when they feel their words have been twisted.

Other times it isn't how you say it, but what you say. Junk email, otherwise known as j-mail, is the "$75 Nordic Track for sale" notice that has been haunting some screens or the "sublet available, call me."

Putting out unsolicited email canbe considered "noising up" everybody's mail boxes.

At UC Irvine, for instance, a heated debate broke out a while back when one department emailed much of the campus about its charity auction. The offending department was "flamed." In electronic jargon, to flame is the email term for sending angry messages when provoked by the ill manners of others.

However, flaming itself is considered boorish.

For that matter, said Wheaton, "it could be that the etiquette of email is not so widely known. I think it's a little on the technical side to know that all capital letters is considered shouting in email. Our campus is just coming up on widespread use of email in the last two years."

Those who would like a guide to keep them mannerly in all their email ways might want to check out an electronic publication on the Internet called "The Net: User Guidelines and Netiquette."

It is available via the World Wide Web at the web address

For help using the web, call workstation consulting at 642-8899.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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