Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Issue 37 – Netiquette

Welcome to this month’s edition of IEA’s registrant resources e-zine “Information Overload”. I would just like to welcome our new subscribers and registrants to the Registrant Resources E-zine, I would also like to say thank you in advance for forwarding this edition onto friends and colleagues, your thoughtfulness is most appreciated. We hope you found the last edition on the subject of what to do if you think you are short on experience of interest and use in your job hunting. 

This month we go completely off the subject and into online etiquette, commonly termed “netiquette” and the problems we face when trying to communicate clearly without the use of things such as body language and eye contact. We hope you enjoy reading.

In this issue we will look at:

• Online Etiquette;
• Making messages meaningful;
• Isn’t it just “common sense”?
• A Thought to ponder

Online Etiquette
Electronic communication has changed the way that we do business. Gone are the days whereby secretaries typed letters, then sent them by the postal service or hand delivered. Telex operators used to spend hours pounding away at clunky machines, typing simple messages that could be relayed across the world. And if people needed to speak to someone they picked up a telephone or held a meeting. Today most people have at least one email address, almost everyone has a mobile phone, we use faxes, personal computers, have access to the Internet and pagers and communicate with people around the world 24/7. Whilst we have always moved to the speed of technology, our expectations have increased. We expect an almost instant response to our requests, and can get annoyed when others don’t meet those expectations. We expect technology to be available when we want to use it and rarely accept “down time”, backup time, server failure, computer crashes or find our access blocked to the Internet with good grace.

Technology may have enabled us to communicate more freely with people and organisations outside our normal sphere of influence. The style and content of the messages that we send and receive have changed also. Whilst it can be argued that we no longer need to formally address the recipient of the message as Dear Sir/Madam – Re: your message of September 4 outlining the …. Especially if we know the person. However, we are seeing more and more instances of electronic communications being sent to the wrong person. Confidential messages being intercepted, people being attacked and abused in public forums such as chat rooms and public list servs. Receiving unwanted messages either as junk mail (SPAM) or finding yourself being “cc’d” into messages that take up valuable time reading them, but add little value to your day. According to a recent article, managers are spending 20% of every working day on email. “That’s 20% of their week, 20% of their year and 20% of their salary handling email.” (Email Communications Survey, Australian Psychological Society, 2003 as reported in Recruitment Extra, June 2005, p25). The question is, what could we better use that time for? So before you next send a message to your entire distribution list, ask yourself a simple question – does the person really need to know this information, or not? Of course if the answer is YES then by all means send it on.

Is it any wonder then that faced with this kind of electronic bombardment we find it difficult to respond in a timely manner. Or if we do respond – it may not be in a formal manner. The problem is that this can cause problems.

Online etiquette should be a continuation of the way you conduct yourself during your day-to-day business activities.  Every message that you write and send is a good indication of your professional image, and the impression a new client will have of you and your organisation. So before you fire off your next email message, ask yourself some questions:
• What is this message saying about me and my professional attitude, and the way that I view the organisation that I work for?
• Would I write it differently if the message was in a memo or on headed paper?
• Would this message be better relayed in a formal letter, on the telephone or face-to-face?

Making messages meaningful
How many times have you received a message with either nothing in the subject line, or the subject line was so vague you were really not sure what the sender was trying to say? Quite a few times I would say. How many of you are guilty of the same thing? Yes I thought so – quite a few, and yes I can also be found guilty at times.

Did you know that if you send a message without anything written in the subject line, with either an attachment or a hypertext link in the body of the message, some firewalls and spam filters will block the message coming through?

When composing messages remember to make the subject line meaningful.
Do not hit the reply button, type in your message and send it straight back. Always check that the recipient of the message is the correct one. This is especially important if you are responding to a message from a list serv. There have been many occasions whereby senders have had to send hasty retractions and apologies for sending inappropriate responses to the entire community.
When composing the body of your message, consider:
• Who am I talking to?
• What do they need to know from me?
• Do I need to write an essay that does not get to the point? or
• Will a simple sentence suffice?
• What language should I be using? Remember you are talking to another person without the benefit of seeing their reaction. Therefore choose your words wisely and carefully. Do not use phrases and words that may insult, defame, slander, or are easily misunderstood.
• If you are writing to a business colleague or to a client, then formal language may still be the best – until you get to know them.
• Remember that if you are using your work computer and email that your messages may be being monitored. They will certainly be “backed up” to the server. So even though you may have deleted the message from your computer – the message can still be found and used as evidence against you.
• Never send a message when you are angry or upset. You may react in haste, but you may be apologising for some time – especially if the message does not reach the intended recipient.
• Never “borrow” someone else’s computer to send messages to other people, and always lock your work station when you are not at your desk, so that they may not use your computer for nefarious purposes – such as downloading and distributing pornographic material, or sending out messages that are deliberately going to incite a situation.
• Have a formal signature panel that is attached to each message that you send;
• Every piece of communication that you send is a reflection on you and your professional ethic. What are your emails saying about you?

It is interesting to note however, that there are some people who feel that email is invisible, that you can get away with saying things in an email that you would never dare say in another forum. In effect, email is the most visible format of communication that you can ever send and use. If you have ever received the emails that have gone around the world several times – highlighting someone’s shortcomings you will know what I mean. So only put into an email message that which you don’t mind someone other than the intended recipient opening and reading.

Isn’t it Just “Common Sense”?
Well yes and no.
Common sense implies that everyone that lives on planet earth comes from the same “term of reference” that we do. As we know, this is simply not the case. Not only do we have language differences to overcome, but our age, gender, race, religion and personal belief systems all play a part in how we conduct ourselves on a daily basis, and therefore what we would consider to be “common sense”.  Most groups of people, will have considerable diversity within their “ranks”, take your current place of work, or any other group with whom you interact with on a regular basis, and you will begin to see what we mean. What one person may find acceptable, another person may not. What may be socially acceptable and perfect etiquette in one cultural setting, maybe totally inappropriate in another.

The more diverse the organisation is, the more likely you are to encounter differing belief systems. It makes “sense” then to ensure that your business etiquette is not left to individuals to determine. But to have an established set of structured principles by which you and your organisation can operate, confidently and consistently – every time. Find out what the established practice is for Email signatures and ensure that yours follows the same pattern. Of course if your organisation does not have a policy for such things as electronic signature panels, then choose a “professional” signature and use it.

For example:

First Name Last Name
Position – include here, whether you are a contract employee and who you are contracted from. Not only is this polite, but you may be seen to be job hopping by some potential employers. Whilst you can explain this at the interview, chances are good they will find someone who is likely to stay, because they may assume that you will be looking for the next opportunity as soon as you arrive!!!
Name of organisation you are working with
Email address:
Web address:

To your success.

A Thought to Ponder
“It takes less time to do things right than to explain why you did it wrong”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow