Email communication guidelines

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Email Communication, Suggested Guidelines

Email is a powerful tool for communication. These guidelines will help email senders and receivers be aware of the benefits and pitfalls of using email rather than talking by phone or meeting in person.

Benefits of Email

  • Email is best suited for informational uses where the content is practical and specific, and is free of emotional content.

Pitfalls of Email

  • Careless use of email can create negative feelings and mistaken understanding or interpretation of the sender's intent.
  • Think back to instances where you have misunderstood someone else's email, or gotten upset, or where you sent an email that caused someone else to become upset or angry. If you can remember such an instance, please reflect on what caused the upset feelings, and what it would have taken to avoid that.
  • When the topic is complex, or likely to result in confusion or misunderstanding by the reader, live conversation is suggested. Pick up the phone, or schedule a meeting.
  • Below are some suggested email guidelines that are adapted from Tree Bressen's Email Guidelines.

Recommended uses of email include:

  • community-building (borrowing items, ridesharing, etc.)
  • minutes distribution
  • announcements
  • scheduling meetings and making arrangements
  • logistics such as giving driving directions
  • factual information
  • background research & documentation
  • posting agendas
  • sending out drafts of proposals

Don't try to use email for:

  • giving and receiving personal feedback about each other's behaviour
  • sharing upset feelings
  • resolving interpersonal tensions
  • discussions that have significant emotional content
  • revising proposals if there is any emotional charge
  • sarcasm
  • replying emotionally to an email that has made you feel upset:
    • For example, if you read an email and felt offended or that it has wasted your time or was poorly worded, find time to talk by telephone or face-to-face with the other person.

When in doubt, don't hit the Send button!

Final Thoughts

  • Email tends to favour fast readers and fast typists -- people who are verbally articulate and can speak their thoughts directly.
  • Some people check email often. Others do not, and open their email only rarely.
  • Many people get "too much" email compared to how much time they can spend reading, digesting, and carefully replying. Therefore:
    • In the subject line, clearly state the purpose or topic. Help the receiver avoid reading irrelevant messages.
    • Be brief and concise. Keep the email short, unless the email must convey detailed facts, such as when making revisions to a proposed contract, for example, or giving detailed instructions how to do something. Longer emails are typically the kind which the reader will need to print out and keep for reference -- in that case, often the best course is to attach a document to the email with all the details, and restrict the email itself a few short paragraphs.
  • If you receive an email which has upset you, do not reply via email. Break the chain -- either pick up the phone, or write back something like, "Can we schedule a time to discuss this message further?"

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