E-Mail Etiquette: The Do's and Don'ts

2004/1/27 #845528: Computer monitor with e-mail window, on texture, partial graphic
The "e" in e-mail might as well stand for "essential." Most of us have become hopelessly dependent on the immediacy of communicating with e-mail. Whether it's at a cafe or on a construction site, it's always there, calling us.

According to a recent survey, nearly three-quarters of people say they love their e-mail so much, they'd rather give up chocolate (54%) or coffee (50%) or TV (41%).

But while we might all agree e-mail can be great, we are most definitely not all great e-mailers ...

For some there is the problem of mistakes in sending. When typing in one woman's address it brings up another woman with a similar name — sticky if the e-mail is compromising for one or the other … or both.

Then there is the technology hurdle: Text messaging and e-mail may work for exchanging information, but all that thumb action can get in the way of personal interactions — save that for the phone, or in person.

And then there is the problem of being, perhaps, too polite. Someone writes, 'Thank you," and you write back, 'You're welcome.' They write back again, 'Not at all.' How long does this goes on? You've got to stop it someplace, so how do you do it without being rude?

Enter Will Schwalbe, editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books, and David Shipley, deputy editor of The New York Times' editorial page. They've recently been dispending advice about the do's and don'ts of e-mail around the country.

"In a perfect world, we would have time to compose really eloquent messages where the excitement was contained in the language," Schwalbe told an audience. "That's not our world."

Their new book, "Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home," offers some common sense tips, but Schwalbe says even those who consider themselves expert e-mailers might benefit.

"When people come up to get a copy of the book, the first thing they always say is they're not buying it for themselves," Schwalbe told CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Daniel Sieberg. "It's like, 'Oh, I have to buy this for my son or my daughter.' Or a lot of people say, 'I have to buy this for my boss.' But then we've been hearing by e-mail from people afterwards who said, like, "I bought it for my boss and then I read it and I realized I have a lot of room to improve."

The problem is that most people aren't aware of their e-mail idiosyncrasies, including me. Most people consider themselves to be masterful messengers. In short, we could all use a lesson. So I decided to send them an e-mail.

David Shipley analyzed my message:

"So the subject line is 'Moving forward,' which has a positive cast to it," Shipley said. "But it seems to me that maybe it could have been slightly more specific."

"If you take a second or two to be precise with what you're e-mailing about, you'll find that most people will be more precise when they respond to you. And then you'll spend a lot less time going back and forth on e-mail," he added.

Good advice. So I wrote him another e-mail ...

"This is getting a little complicated," Shipley said, as his in-box received yet more queries from me. "It's getting to the point where maybe we should be moving to a phone call."

Schwalbe writes, "And as for moving from digital to face-to-face, anytime it gets emotional or confusing or overly complicated or the e-mails start piling up, then it's time to get off e-mail."


Clearly there are limitations when it comes to e-mail exchanges, and I think this correspondence might be better in person at this point, so let's get out from behind the keystrokes.

Apparently the first lesson of e-mail etiquette is, knowing when to e-mail in the first place!

"What we discovered, which is so great, is that if you send better e-mails, not only do you get better e-mails but you get fewer e-mails," said Schwalbe. "But we've also become fans, too, of when to get off e-mail."

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.