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A Thirst For E-Mail Etiquette

With apologies to Tivo and the cotton sweater, e-mail just might be the greatest invention of the past 50 years. You can use it successfully 24 hours a day, it's an easy way to communicate, and you don't have to actually talk to someone if you don't feel like it.

But e-mail is not perfect. Volumes have been written about the annoying spam we get, and volumes should be written about the bad jokes that friends forward to us. But I have some other problems with e-mail and think we all have to agree on some basic e-mail etiquette and rules.

Unless you are positive the person you are writing to knows all the geeky e-mail abbreviations and emoticons that you know, don't use them. Unless the recipient spends as much time on the Internet as you do, he or she is not likely to know that IOHO stands for, "In Our Humble Opinion," or that 0+ stands for a female. Just write things out. No one's going to LOL at you.

Sometimes I'll send someone an e-mail and I won't hear back right away because the person didn't get the message. Then after a few days, he'll get the message. Where was that e-mail for three days? In cyberspace, being held hostage by hackers, or is the recipient just ducking me like those who say they never get our phone messages? So, if it's an important e-mail, I think it would be a good rule that once you get the e-mail, you write back and say, "I got it."

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If I e-mail you and you don't get back to me for several days, please include my e-mail in your response. Otherwise, I'll probably have no idea what you're talking about. Let's say I wrote you that my wife had the flu, and I also asked what you thought about a movie. If you don't include what I said to you and you write back something like, "Sorry. It stunk," I'll probably e-mail you again and ask what you're talking about, and the whole process will start all over again.

There are no guidelines for when a back-and-forth e-mail communication should end. It's kind of like teenagers on the phone: nobody wants to be the one to say "goodbye" and hang up.

A typical exchange of e-mails might be as follows:

Jill – I got the photos. They're great. Thanks.

Judy – You're welcome.

Logically, the e-mail exchange could end right there. But it rarely does. It tends to go on like this:

Jill – Let's stay in touch. Bye.

Judy – I'll write to you soon. Bye.

Jill – If I have any news, I'll write to you first.

Judy – Okay.

Jill — Bye.

Judy — Bye.

Things can get even more elaborate when plans are made by e-mail:

Jim – How about lunch next Wednesday?

Bill – Sounds good to me. Mario's at 12:30?

Jim – Can you make it 1:00?

Bill –1:00 is fine.

Jim – Great.

Bill – So, is Mario's okay?

Jim – Sounds good.

Bill – Okay.

Jim – I'll see you there.

Bill – Right.

Jim — The Mario's on Main Street, right?

Bill — Right. Have a good week.

Jim – You, too.

Bill — Bye.

Jim – So long.

Bill – I look forward to our lunch.

Jim – Me, too.

Bill – What time did we say? 12:30 or 1:00?

Jim – 1:00. At Mario's.

Bill – I'm writing it in my book.

Jim – Me, too.

Bill – Bye.

Jim – See you next week.

Bill – See you at Mario's.

Jim – At 1:00.

Bill – Bye.

So, Bill and Jim spent a long time working out plans that could have been worked out over the phone in a minute or two. So, my next suggestion for a rule is that if an e-mail exchange is longer than four e-mails, STOP! Pick up the phone and work things out more quickly. But if you call, you always run the risk of getting a message like this: "Sorry I missed your call. Please try me on my cell phone." Then you'll have to send them an e-mail to make sure their cell phone got your message.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver
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