Email and IM netiquette

[from the UW-Madison IT department website}

Email etiquette in an instant messaging world

Wednesday, August 01, 2007Communication is becoming more electronic, less formal, and maybe less effective.

Just a few short years ago, exchanging written information in higher education and business meant a formal business letter, with a title, address block, closing, and a handwritten signature. Today, email is the primary means for communicating. eMarketer estimates that 147 million people across the country use email almost daily.

For many students, instant messaging (a.k.a. “texting”) is the preferred way to communicate with peers. Keeping in touch with friends through social networking sites such as MySpace has grown tremendously popular. “I check my Facebook more than I do my email account,” says Stephanie Arndt, a UW-Madison sophomore majoring in biochemistry and computer science.

Texting is done in real time with cellphones or computers, using typed abbreviations, acronyms and slang (such as IMHO for In My Humble Opinion). Students using texting have developed their own concise language full of shortcuts.

With these ever-changing trends, the chasm between “old-school” and “new-school” ways of communicating is growing. Some faculty and staff are put off by the informality and brevity of emails they receive from students; yet the current cohort of college students is accustomed to multitasking — watching TV while studying; talking on the phone while surfing the Internet; and emailing on the fly.

The result? Students don’t always have the time or the inclination to construct classically formed sentences, and therefore the quality of their communications may suffer.

So can staff and students find common ground in the face of diverging expectations? Is it even possible to define “good etiquette” when it comes to electronic communication?

“Absolutely,” says Bonnie Abrams, admissions coordinator for the School of Music. She believes that even with the stylistic differences between IMing and emailing, there is still room for respect, good grammar and the thoughtful exchange of ideas, and she encourages the students she works with to consider them when communicating with others.

Does your email etiquette measure up?

Bonnie Abrams, admissions coordinator for the School of Music, shares her own and others’ communication tips for students and other email users:

  • Sign off with your entire name; don’t make the recipient try to guess your name based only on your email address.
  • Don’t start emails out with “Hey” or similarly informal openings.
  • Use clear subject lines.
  • If you’re dealing with a sensitive subject, talk about it in person, not through email.
  • Use capitalization where it is traditionally called for, but don’t use all caps, which is considered rude and can be hard to read.
  • Use paragraphs; don’t run all sentences together for the entire email.
  • Keep it short. If your email is more than two or three paragraphs, consider using the telephone.
  • Include pertinent information (for example, if you’re asking for something to be mailed to you, include your entire name and address).
  • When responding to an email, use “reply to” or reference the previous email. Don’t respond to a question with a simple one-word reply, forcing the sender to search for his or her original email to decipher your response.
  • Review your email before clicking Send. Double check the “to” field, spelling, attachments and overall tone. Keep in mind that humor doesn’t always translate well in print.
  • And remember that how you write an email can make a lasting impression — good or bad.

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