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Email Etiquette 101

About six years ago, I said this to my wife: “I’ll never use email.”

Man, how wrong was I. Now I sit here as the spiritual leader of a group, a traveling speaker, a musician and a college professor; to stay up with my own life, email is my main form of communication.

It’s funny to me how older people (45 and up) make these dire comments on how our electronic age is the death knell to relationships, to community and even to our “humanness.” While I am well aware of the singularity and it’s import (who can watch T3 or The Matrix and not shudder somewhat even aware of how far-fetched they are), computers have actually made our world smaller and more communal.

I can lament with others over the poor writing ability of people these days, but I also can see the silver lining to the electronic communication revolution in that people ARE actually writing more. Certainly, the day of handwritten letters is gone, but in its place we see millions of short, hand-typed cards and letters speeding along with the electronic postman. If anything, for those who understand, I am CLOSER to my friends, more in contact with them, than ever before.

Ah, but there is the rub—“for those that understand.” Far too often I am brought up short in realization that many people who purport to be aficionados of email are really not. Not with it, not able to understand how it works, not able to actually use it wisely and politely. Now this is not a diatribe on spam (we all know about that), but rather a lament on the lack of email etiquette or at least a general understanding of what we have here.

So, in an effort to help the process, let me lay out a few basic ideas for email etiquette that, if you keep in mind, will enable you to do well in the electronic world.

Email is a communication concept. As hard as it is for people to get this, your email is like a phone number. As such, when you give out your email address, you are telling people “it is okay to communicate with me this way.” Think of it this way—most people would never give out their phone number and then refuse to reply to phone calls or messages left. Certainly there are some times that you get a phone message that you choose to ignore, but most of the time you respond. You call the person back. And you do it within 48 hours most of the time (heck, for many of you, you do it within 48 seconds). An email demands the same level of response.

If you don’t reply to my message to you, I think you are rude, angry at me, are refusing to talk to me, etc. Believe it or not, not responding to an email is the same as not responding a phone call. Both took the same level of investment by me; I want to hear from you. You are being rude not to reply!

You must check your emails at least once a day. Like phone calls, left untended, emails become numerous. Imagine not answering your phone for a week; how many messages would you have? Now consider how difficult it would be to contact all those people; it would take all day to call them all back. Instinctively we know this, so we check our phone messages daily (or more often) and call people back. We know that if we don’t, in the end we won’t call them back at all, making us look rude, and, if these are potential clients, that is a huge mistake.

“But I have so many emails daily.” Yes, on one of my three emails that I check daily, I receive an average of 400 emails. That is why you use a filter and delete them as easily as you don’t answer the “unknown caller” on your caller ID. It takes about as long to look at the caller ID to determine “this is not for me.”

You don’t HAVE to have an email address. Many people would make the world a better place if they’d just answer the question of, “Do you have an email address?” with a simple “No!” Remember rule #1—email is a communication concept. If you tell me you have an email, then I am going to use it as surely as I will use your phone number. But if you don’t plan on replying, then we have a problem. So, if you don’t want to communicate by email, then don’t. Get rid of your every email address and live in peace.

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You don’t have to give your email address out. Okay, so some of you have an email address due to work or school or whatever. But you hate email, and you don’t plan on using it that often. Okay, then don’t ever give it out except in those cases that you are forced to (just your clients for instance).

Be honest with people about your preferred communication style. Now, after years of frustration, I am in the habit of asking that question of new contacts: “Do you prefer email or phone?” It varies, and I always tell the person that I hate phones and love email, so they need to be prepared to meet me halfway if they want to do business with me. But at least I go into the relationship knowing what they prefer.

Group emails still mean you may have to reply. Of course this all depends on the group concept that you are a part of. My extended family uses it simply as information communication; no reply is expected. However, my church also uses group email, and from time to time, a clear expectation about reply is there. Make sure you check clearly to see if the sender expects a reply or not.

Sometimes to help people, you have to clearly ask for a reply. As silly as it may seem, some people need that clear prompt that you expect a reply. Make sure you give them one if you want to be certain they reply.

There may be other rules, such as typing style or knowing the shortcuts to words on email or IM, but these will do for starters. Email is an important form of communication and will continue to grow in prominence. Prepare yourself for it, but protect yourself at the same time by keeping these etiquette rules in mind. Time is certainly short these days, and you may feel compelled to not want to check your email. I feel the same way about cell phones; my time is short, and I don’t want to be bothered or found every minute. So, I don’t have one. Rather than having several messages in a stack that I’m supposed to reply to, rather than getting overwhelmed with even more “spam” phone calls, I simply remain Amish in intent and go phone-less. You can do the same with email.

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