Different forms of electronic communication have existed since the 1970s, but commercial use of the internet for this purpose did not occur until the late 1980s. The widespread use of Internet “electronic mail” (email) as a global communication standard started in the early 1990s when major service providers became readily available. In the last 13 years email communication has become one of the easiest and most widespread means of disseminating information.
The ease of this method of communication also poses some problems not encountered when communicating by other means. By following simple guidelines of etiquette, the effectiveness of email can be maximized. Etiquette is defined as the set of rules or customs that control accepted behavior in certain situations. By using proper etiquette, you can minimize the likelihood that an email message will be ignored, deleted, or perceived in the wrong way. Although specific logistics on how to use email vary by software, these common guidelines are applicable to all email communications. These guidelines are organized as “general usage,” “content,” “sending,” and “mailbox management.”
Rules of General Usage
Rule 1. Email is the property of your company.
All email communications and the space where they are stored are the property of your company. Therefore, companies retain the right to access and monitor communications at all times. As an agent of your institution, your communications represent yourself as much as they represent your institution, regardless of content. Your usage of company email may make the institution vulnerable to unnecessary risks including liabilities, security vulnerabilities, and privacy violations. For this reason, some companies have added disclaimers to the “signature” of all email sent from their company accounts.
Rule 2. Email is not truly private.
You must be careful and judicious when discussing private or sensitive topics by email, including veterinary advice. Although generally secure and safe, email is not truly private, since most companies reserve the right (and have the capability) to monitor email communications. Email messages can be retrieved even after deletion. In addition, email that is sent to an intended recipient can be forwarded to other recipients, creating a permanent trail of evidence of your communication to people who you never intended to receive it. It is also very easy to print received messages and share them in the “old fashioned” way. Most people are more likely to read (and share) email intended for somebody else than with traditional paper correspondence.
For government-owned or government-funded zoological (or other non-profit) institutions, all email communications are part of “open records” acts and equally accessible as all paper records.
In medicine, advice provided by email can be legally interpreted as practicing medicine. While it is acceptable to provide advice or discuss cases with colleagues as a consultant, keep in mind that “remote” diagnosis or providing primary medical advice must be done judiciously and ethically. If you provide veterinary advice to an owner (or keeper or curator), you should ensure there is a valid veterinarian-patient-client relationship or you may be practicing veterinary medicine illegally.
Rules of General Content
Rule 3. Always use a subject line.
Most email software will display the sender and a subject. It is easier for a user to skim through topics and prioritize messages. By having a subject line, you validate that it is an important and real email, and not spam or a hoax. Your subject line should be updated to reflect the content of your email. It is easy to look up an old address and hit reply without updating the subject, but this can be disorienting to the receiver.
Rule 4. Avoid multiple subject communications in a single message.
Unless topics are related or somehow connected, avoid multiple discussions in an email. Most users may skim through a long message, and multiple issues may be ignored. So, if a topic is important enough to warrant an email communication, make it the sole topic of that message.
Rule 5. Avoid email-based arguments and flagrant responses.
If you get an email that has a negative tone, avoid the temptation to reply in an escalating, negative way. Body language and tone cannot be interpreted in emails, so it is easy to misperceive the tone of a message. To avoid making a situation worse, step away from the message, think through the consequences carefully, and reply later when you have calmed down. If negative confrontation is needed, try other means of communication such as a phone conversation or a person-to-person discussion.
Take the “high road” on blatantly flagrant, negative communications. Be professional in your response. Do not be afraid to ignore unproductive communications or reply with a simple, diplomatic line. Breaking off a cycle of negative “flaming” communications can be done with a message such as “Let’s discuss by phone” or “Let’s meet.”
Rule 6. Avoid “spam.”
Spam has no place in professional communications. This includes jokes, chain mails, advertisements, and political or religious propaganda. All these communications should be done from a personal email account. See rules 1, 2 and 7.
Rule 7. Be conscientious about separating professional and personal use of email.
You should limit the usage of company email to professional communications related to the performance of your job duties. Personal email use takes up unnecessary company resources. Some organizations provide guidelines for personal use of company email, but in general, this should be avoided. Remember that all of these communications are company property (Rule #1), and they are never truly private (Rule #2). There are instances where the overlap of the two is unavoidable, such as when emailing certain colleagues, and this is acceptable in most instances. In addition, you should avoid using personal email accounts for professional communications, as these may construe misrepresentation of company guidelines.
Rule 8. Avoid using all-caps. Reconsider when needing to use “emoticons.”
Using all caps when typing, GIVES THE IMPRESSION THAT YOU ARE SCREAMING. All-caps are sometimes used for EMPHASIS in a sentence, but in general should be avoided (unless you want to be screaming). Punctuation marks can effectively offer the same emphasis.
Another popular way to emphasize parts of sentences is by the use of “emoticons.” Emoticons are visual images (such as smiling or sad faces) made by combining certain punctuation marks. Some software recognizes these punctuation marks and automatically replaces them with actual images. Their usage in professional communications is discouraged because they may not be interpreted in the context that they are meant by a sender. Some believe that emoticons can be used to “tone down” certain remarks, or to emphasize when something is meant as a joke. Often the use of these “emoticons” is a sign that you should rephrase the sentence.
Rule 9. Use spell check.
Professional communication should be professional. It is easy to use a spell check or grammar check to free a message of spelling mistakes. Proper spelling conveys a sense of education and professionalism in a medium of communication where other cues cannot be used. Remember that you are representing your institution, and you should act professionally.
Rule 10. Use a signature.
Although you may believe that your name will be recognized, having a signature will remind the recipient of who you are, what you do, and where you currently work. Some email services will display an abbreviated sender’s name, and your signature is a way to assure that the recipient will know who is sending a message. It is easy to set up automatic signature lines in your email software and some organizations ,may have institutional guidelines for the usage of standardized staff signatures. In general, signatures should be kept to a maximum of five lines:
1. Your name: it may be appropriate to add titles such as DVM, PhD, MS, board certifications or diplomate status, etc., for professional communications.
2. Your title: use the professional title or name of your position in which capacity you are establishing the communication. If you act in more than one capacity, it may not be necessary to list all your job titles; this might be interpreted as boastful.
3. Your institution: include the official name of your institution unless you are using a personal email account. Avoid adding your institution in your signature, where it may be construed as misrepresentation.
4. Phone and/or fax numbers: provide only your work numbers. Leave your personal home number for personal emails only.
5. Email address: although the email is in your sender communication, add it to your signature because some people may print communications for further reference.
In some cases, a personal quote or institutional statement or disclaimer is added after your signature. You should avoid unnecessarily lengthy signatures. In general, images in the signature create unnecessarily large email messages and some email software will not recognize it.
Rules for Receiving and Sending Email
Rule 11. Do not open unknown or unexpected attachments.
Many computer viruses may be imbedded in email programs or forwarded as email attachments. These messages should be deleted. If you open them, you could expose yourself and your company to the effects of these viruses. Even updated virus protection software may not prevent you from being infected, as viruses can evolve faster than antiviral software. A virus may come from a known sender who was infected and inadvertently distributed the virus to contacts in his/her email address book. If you get an unexpected attachment and are not sure whether to open or delete it, call your IT professional before opening it.
Rule 12. Mailing lists and out of office rules.
“Out of office” messages can be set up to automatically respond when you are away from your office. This could create a problem if you are subscribed to certain listserves or mailing lists that may not recognize “out of office” automated messages. In these cases, your computer will reply with an automated message to all senders in the list. Since this will include yourself as a recipient in the mailing list, your automatic rule may reply again. This will flood everybody in the list with messages from your automated mailbox. More sophisticated automated rules will only send one message per recipient, so they will respond to a mailing list or listserve only once—but this is not always the case. If you are going away and set up an automated message, you should do one of the following:
1. Temporarily unsubscribe. (This may actually be a good time to permanently unsubscribe from mailing lists that don’t serve your interests any more).
2. Set up your “out of office” rule to not respond to specific mailing lists or senders.
3. Set up your “out of office” rule to respond only to messages sent directly to you.
4. Contact your IT manager to ensure that you set up the rule properly.
Rule 13. Use “cc” (carbon copy) lines judiciously.
Although it is easy to copy senders in an email, you should check the recipients in a “cc” field. If the “cc” recipients are not intended as primary senders, you should not expect a response from them unless you specifically request so. Do not copy unnecessary recipients just for your own convenience. Also see rule 14.
Rule 14. Use of “bcc” (blind carbon copy) field.
The “bcc” field should be used to enhance communications, not to create a “secret” trail of communications. If you are the recipient of a “bcc” message, avoid replying to the senders to whom the mail is intended for. (This defeats the purpose of being “blind copied”). You can reply to the sender individually.
The “bcc” field can be used to improve mass mailings. When sending messages to a group of people, do not put too many of subjects in the “to” field. Recipients will get a message with a large header, and this will also expose the email addresses of the all the recipients to the entire group. If the identity and list of recipients is not essential, you can put all the recipients in the “bcc” field. This will prevent each recipient from seeing all the other recipients’ identities.
Rule 15. When replying, double check the list of recipients.
Mass sent emails may be a good way for a sender to send information to a large number of people without having to do so individually, but recipients should be careful when replying. Unless you want the whole group to be informed, reply to the individual sender. Do not forget to update the subject line if you are replying with regards to a different topic.
Rule 16. Don’t forward large files unless you must.
When sharing large attachments (e.g., pictures or PDF documents), keep in mind that a large file will take up space in a recipient’s mailbox, but also in your own “sent items” mailbox. You may want to check with a recipient before sending an important, but large, document. Some email services limit the size of messages that can be received, and the message may be undeliverable. Your recipient’s mailbox may also be limited. Finally, downloading large attachments may be a burden on some “dial-up” services and slower computers.
Rules for Mailbox Management
Rule 17. Clean your mailbox.
Although you think of your messages as “your” mailbox, the messages are actually taking up shared space somewhere else. You should always delete emails that you do not need (or file messages of importance) in the same way that you would manage paper correspondence. Avoid saving messages just for the sake of preserving their contact information. Contact information can be stored elsewhere. If you exceed the allocated space to your email inbox, you may not be able to receive or send email.
Most email software will allow you to create a personal folder in your local computer, and this is a good alternative to occupying “shared” space. However, remember that email stored locally in your computer may not be available if you try to access email remotely or from a different computer terminal. In addition to your “inbox,” remember to delete messages out of your “sent” mail folders. Once your email has moved to your “deleted” folder, you should empty these items eventually. Those messages are still occupying space somewhere until you permanently delete them.
The details on how to use specific email software programs vary and are beyond the scope of this presentation. However, using these common rules will help you be more effective in communicating by email. Certain aspects of email will always have to be judged on a message-specific basis, such as cultural content and language differences, but using basic rules of etiquette will simplify the structure of these communications.