Document #037 - July 1992

Although only beginning in 1987, electronic mail has become the standard mode of inter-office and, in many cases, intra-office communications. Linking the campus electronic mail system to that provided world-wide by the internet, adds a new dimension to this new form of communications. As a result of this growth, it is perhaps proper to have a brief discussion of some electronic etiquette.

Flaming--When you read a message, you are already sitting down at your workstation and if something in the message sets you off, it is very easy to quickly compose and fire off a nasty reply--one that you will probably later wish you hadn't sent. This is called "flaming" by some mail users. If you really want to "flame", remember that the recipient is not able to see your face or hear your voice. You might want to consider using a sad face, such as 8 - ( (look at it sideways) or even the words "this is a flame" in your message. It might be better, however, to cool off and not reply immediately. Some organizations have adopted to rule of not replying to anything provoking anger for 24 hours. Others use the rule of sending nothing negative over electronic mail.

Humor--As just noted, electronic communication lacks visual or auditory clues about the state of mind of the communicator. Humor usually does not go over well. It is easily mistaken for sarcasm in tight situations. If you really want to use humor, again you can alert the recipient with a smiley face such as 8-) or even the word "humor" or "joke".

Excessive Copies
--Because it is so easy to do, it is tempting to send a copy of an electronic communication to everyone--some that might be mildly interested, some not interested at all, and some to just provoke a reaction. Again it is best for all concerned, if the number to receive a message is reduced to those that have an active interest in the subject. Reading through a list of several hundred messages after returning from a one week conference, will emphasize the impact of this suggestion. On the other hand, if your message is of substance, your reply is of substance and the message came as a distribution to several people, it is only polite to send your reply to all receiving copies of the original message.

Electronic Junk Mail--Just as junk mail is not welcome at many homes, electronic junk mail is also not welcome by many electronic mail users. It only adds to the stack of messages that have to be sorted through. It should be noted that the OSU Acceptable Use Policy prohibits use of the electronic mail system for "broadcasting" of unsolicited mail.

Frequent Reading--It is polite to frequently read your electronic mail-- at least once a day should be mandatory. If you are going to be away from your office for several days, it is appropriate to have another staff member read your mail so as to take care of pressing problems. They can also reply back something to the effect: "So and so is on vacation until the first of the month. I will see that it is taken care of." It should be emphasized that a reduction in the frequency of individuals reading (and reacting) to electronic mail is, in the opinion of many, directly related to the amount of electronic junk mail that is received.

Long Distribution Lists--Distribution lists that are very long should be avoided. It is true that it is easy to send information to large numbers of people, it should be avoided. Electronic mail should be used mostly for person to person communications--not the bulk distribution of information. It is recognized that it is less expensive to use electronic mail than to send a one page memo to campus mailing and printing. On the other hand, large amounts of junk mail (and junk is in the eye of the beholder) will result in less effectiveness of the mail system. Some people will just not use it.
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Forwarding--In most e-mail systems, it is very easy to forward a communication. If you had received a written letter from someone, would you duplicate it and send it to a lengthy list of individuals? Probably not. If the subject of the message is in any way controversial, we suggest that you inform the original sender of your forwarding the message.

Acknowledgement--If the message is a request for something and if the response is not to be sent back in an relatively short amount of time, it is polite to respond with something short such as "got your request for xxx and will get back to you soon (or . . . have forwarded it to yyy for reply).

Overly Short Responses--Make sure that your response is clear. For example, it is frustrating to get a response message of "yes" when you have sent maybe fifteen different questions to different people. It is polite to enclose your answer in some additional text indicating what it is you are answering such as, "Yes, I will definitely support your position of xxx on issue yyy. If the original message is long or contains several different items, some users respond with the original message (adding the symbol < at the beginning of each line) and then the individual responses on separate lines, without the < and interspersed throughout the original text where appropriate.

Long "ropes" or "chains"--The practice of copying the inbound message and adding a response to it can lead to a very long "chain" or "rope" of message, and comments. This is particularly true if several people are involved, or the conversation's an extended one. This is obviously somewhat at odds with the advice to avoid overly short responses and good judgement is called for.

Privacy--Because it is very easy to copy, forward and save electronic messages, it is best to assume that any electronic communication is public knowledge. If you don't want to read it on the front page of the newspaper, don't send it. You should also be aware that the State of Oregon considers electronic mail public records and subject to the relevant law. Electronic mail records must be made available, upon request, to any member of the public, unless the record is exempt by law from disclosure.

--Unless an abbreviation is really well understood, it is best to avoid them. Individuals who read the Usennet news frequently may pick up some of the abbreviations which, in some cases, may be thought of as a badge of distinction. However, you may want to think again about sending a message to a Vice President with the abbreviation BTW (by the way) or IMHO (in my humble opinion). These may be well understood in the UNIX community but they are not well understood in the administrative community.

Emergency situations--Do not use electronic mail for emergency messages. There is no control to make sure the message is read or that the message is read by the right person.

Several different mail systems are in use at Oregon State University. The predominate personal computer based system is cc:Mail although other personal computer based systems are in use. A growing number of users have access to a UNIX facility and use a UNIX based mail facility. The different mail systems are interconnected using gateways that convert from one mail protocol to another. When going from one protocol to another, some functionality is lost and unless the senders and receivers of mail that cross systems are aware of this, some breaches of etiquette may occur. Even within the same type of mail service, it is very easy to offend someone without even knowing it.

Who The Message Is From--Some mail systems or gateways do not indicate who the sender of the message is. This is common when using a list server. In these cases, particularly when a message is to be sent off campus, include a signature line indicating who you are and your electronic address at the end of the message itself.

Return Receipts
--cc:Mail users should be alerted to the fact that the Return Receipt feature will not work for addresses that are internet addresses. This may sometimes fool you as a person can have an alias in the cc:Mail directory, but that alias only sends the mail on to a UNIX mail host through the internet gateway. Knowing this it is polite to send a response to an incoming internet message just to let the sender know you got it. A simple, "Thanks for the information about xxx" will suffice.

Copies Not Shown--Mail received over the internet gateway may not show the names of all receiving a copy. When you reply to such a message using various reply features, your reply may be sent to more people than you intended.

Special Editing Characters--Mail that goes though a gateway to another system will have special characters removed. Thus things like underlined text, centered text, use of colors for emphasis, will not be transferred through to the target system. Usually the special codes are just dropped which may result in unreadable text. When colors are used it should be recognized that some workstations do not have a color capability (such as most campus Macintosh systems.) A particular color combination that might look great on a color screen, may well come out as white text on a white background on a non-color screen.

Permission to copy without fee all or part of this material is granted provided that the copies are not made or distributed for direct commercial advantage, the UCS copyright notice and the title of the publication and its date appear, and notice is given that copying is by permission of University Computing Services. To copy otherwise, or to republish, requires a fee and/or specific permission.

Copyright 1993 University Computing Services, Oregon State University.