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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?

Ian's picture

@MEP - your point about...

@MEP - your point about writing readable prose is well taken; however, my point is that plain text is not the only reasonable mode of writing. Personally, I'd rather have more contextual information than less; sometimes it's hard to tell tone, even in good writing (for example, if I didn't know better, I might think that your invocation of Stunk & White was a passive-aggressive dig at my writing style ;). Good writing should indeed be a priority, but I still don't see that as a reason to disallow rich text across the board.

I also disagree that setting up a filter on your end is ridiculous. It's empowering; don't depend on other people to conform to your view of the world, but use technology to "customize" your own view. No one is saying you have to do it, but if it really bothers you that people put rich text in emails, the choice is yours.

Now, I'll admit to playing Devil's Advocate a bit. At home, I'm a plain text guy all the way (I manage my life in text files, and almost never use said formatting "crutches" in my messages). If email had been like TXT messages and never strayed into formatting territory, perhaps we'd all be better off. But it didn't; the cat is out of the bag, and email is no longer a text-only medium, and I don't think it can ever go back. Outlaw the distracting froofy backgrounds & fonts, perhaps, but embrace richer modes of communication in general.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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