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Vox Pop: Your best "best practice" for email?

Short Subject: Now You're Talking (1927)

prosaic [on email]

Chris Streeter picks up on a thread that I've been thinking about a lot lately (and he's kind to mention the relationship to Inbox Zero).

He reminds us that the etiquette for using a telephone was once well-established enough to earn a place in the encyclopedia:

the encyclopedia told you how to answer the phone. not how to pick it up and dial or how the phone switching system worked, but what to say. it even had illustrations (little susie picking up the phone, announcing her residence, listening attentively, etc.). anyway, the point is, nobody ever set the ground rules for email. nobody ever said, this is what the subject line should cover, this is how many sentences an email ought to be, this is how long you should reasonably expect a person to wait to reply, etc. they just threw it at us and let everyone make up their own rules. of course, everyone will make up their own rules anyway, and that encyclopedia sure did a helluva lot of good with our phone manners, didn't it? but still, the idea that we have never, ever, worked out a set of rules or mores for email is kind of incredible.

I think a lot of people would scoff at the idea of a standard for email communication, and I'll admit that I'm not sure what a truly comprehensive -- or even 80-percent-universal -- set of best practices would look like. But, that, in some ways is the problem.

"Netiquette" was pounded into my head from day one on the 'net, but I'll freely admit I've never been 100% -- at least partly because email was clearly the Wild West from a lot of people's perspective. We've each been free to evolve or fall ass-backwards into an understanding of how email should be used. How would we begin to ensure that any two given strangers could be on roughly the same page about what email is even for?

I doubt this is a problem that has one answer, but I'm intrigued to consider how we might start solving it if it were. So...

The Question to You:

Think about what you’d do if you ran the world. If you had to choose a single best practice for email usage — format, length, subject matter, even when not to use email.
If you could wave a magic wand and put one guideline in place that would be honored by 80% of civilized people, what would it be? Be creative as you like, but remember: it has to be generic enough that it would work for 80% of email communication everywhere.

What should almost everyone start doing differently with their email today?

Matt's picture

For the people out there...

For the people out there who are clearly frustrated and annoyed by those one-word "thanks" or "you're welcome" messages I would suggest a little deep breathing. Perhaps it's time to stop letting e-mail interrupt your work. If you're getting so worked up over what someone else clearly thinks of as a courtesy, something is clearly not working for you and you need to realize that, as Merlin says, everyone has their own set of rules and etiquette for e-mail.

I, for one, like such succinct messages best of all because (a) in many cases it is very nice to have confirmation that my kind and thoughtful message was received rather than trapped in a spam filter and (b) the only processing required of me is delete. Let's not throw out all of our manners for the sake of saving a keystroke! Because people's preferences differ, perhaps we need a convention similar to the widely recognized "EOM" subject line that says "No reply necessary" or "please confirm receipt"?

Personally, the messages that give me the biggest headaches are the long-winded and ambiguous ones. I completely agree with rediscovering the lost art of the Subject Line. The trend towards five.sentenc.es means well, and I think it's a good guideline for people to keep in mind, but the primary goal should be clear communication.

Do whatever it takes for you to clearly articulate what's on your mind. A writer doing this properly will think about what he or she is saying from my perspective long enough to understand whether or not I might require a long and detailed or short and succinct message. Let's have fewer rules and more thoughtfulness.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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