OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

E-mail: boon or boondoggle?

05/06/1998

CORVALLIS, Ore. - In recent years a whole new form of communication - electronic mail - has captivated people around the world, but experts say it's often abused, misused or misunderstood.

This new medium which was almost nonexistent 10 years ago now pervades the home and office. It's not your grandma's "snail mail," however, and the rules for intelligently using e-mail bear about as much resemblance to old-fashioned mail as the telephon e did to the Pony Express.

Which is to say, many people don't have a clue.

"We're all just learning in this area, and frankly we're discovering what works as we go along," said Vicki Collins, an assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Intensive Curriculum at Oregon State University. "This is a brand new way of communicating."

In her work to help students write and communicate more effectively, Collins has monitored most of the research being done on e-mail and has some general guidelines to pass along. And her corollary to the real estate axiom of "location, location, and location" is to "remember your audience, remember your audience."

"The biggest single mistake most people make when using e-mail is not to consider who may be reading the mail and what is appropriate for that person," Collins said. "Often the communication is seen as inherently informal, since people frequently e-mail casual notes to friends. But communicating with professional colleagues, professors or prospective employers requires more clarity and care."

Further complicating the situation, she said, is the fact that the convenience of editing, saving and forwarding e-mail opens a whole new can of worms that never really existed before - frankly, you don't know WHO might be getting the message you send, or in what altered form.

"In the old days, it was rare for someone to take a written letter, photocopy it, then address and mail the correspondence to some third party," Collins said. "That's no longer the case. With the convenience of electronic forwarding, your message may now be sent to one or dozens of people who you never intended to see it. Keep that in mind."

Other key tips:

 

  • Keep it brief: With e-mail there's an underlying assumption of brevity. People expect messages to be short and to the point, and get irritated when they are not.

     

  • Understand the medium: For instance, only the first 24 lines of a message show on the average computer screen. Take advantage of that by confining your message to that space if possible, and make your most important points in the first few lines. Thin k twice about attaching extra files or using them for your message, because they get garbled in electronic translation far more often than the body of your e-mail message.

     

  • Don't get lost: Many people get dozens of e-mail messages a day, which are easily confused or ignored if the subject line says something vague like "new idea." Be more specific and descriptive with the subject line - "proposal for new English curricul um" - so your message can be easily identified, re-located and doesn't get lost in the shuffle.

     

  • Cut to the chase: When responding to someone else's e-mail, don't necessarily send them back a copy of their entire message. That's cumbersome. But also don't exclude their message completely or they may have forgotten why they contacted you. The best plan is to copy the pertinent section of their message in your reply so they know exactly what you are responding to.

     

  • Be orderly: Unlike other forms of printed information which allow people to flip around and focus their attention on what interests them most, e-mail is usually read sequentially. So keep that in mind and try hard to get the most important information up front.

     

  • Assume it's public: Privacy is a big concern with the Internet and e-mail, and the best advice before you transmit something is to assume almost anyone can see it. Your message may be forwarded to someone you did not intend it for, or archived electro nically without your knowledge and later come back to haunt you.

     

  • Think first, talk later: Before you leap into the discussion in a "chat room" or other public forum such as an online classroom debate, make sure your comments are appropriate for the group discussion. Consider "lurking" for a while and monitor what o ther people are saying before you jump in.

     

  • Best foot forward: It's okay to be informal or casual if you're sure of your audience or situation. But when in doubt, use complete sentences and good grammar, punctuation and spelling so you will appear professional and literate to other people who m ay see your message and form impressions about you, sight unseen.

"With all this advice, it's also important to remember that e-mail can have some enormously positive and liberating advantages as a form of communication," Collins said.

For instance, some introverted people may find it far easier to communicate electronically, as the computer medium helps them break through natural reserve. It can also help transcend cultural barriers felt by some people, who otherwise would feel cons trained from speaking in public.

The convenience and inherent informality of e-mail, Collins said, also can help cut through bureaucratic layers. Many people feel more comfortable than ever using it to communicate directly to the top - so go ahead and tell the boss what you think, b ut keep it brief, clear and professional.