The Ten Commandments of E-Mail

  by Tom Spring

(IDG) -- For centuries, letter writers have pained to get everything from the salutation to the John Hancock as perfect as possible. But the rules for e-mail have yet to be written. Now, Harvard Business School Publishing is proposing a first draft called The Ten Commandments of E-Mail.

It’s high time, says Philadelphia-based communications coach Nick Morgan, who wrote the list in the March issue of Harvard Communications Update. "More and more companies today live in an e-mail culture," Morgan says. "That has meant real losses and gains." Drawing on his own experience and that of clients, he says, high volumes of e-mail are one of the biggest problems for workers today. "It’s getting to the point where we show up at work read our e-mail, respond to it, and then go home," he says.

According to estimates by International Data Corporation, about 2.1 billion e-mail messages are sent each day in the United States. By 2002 that number is expected to jump to 8 billion.

The Ten Commandments of E-Mail:

  1. Delete that e-mail. "You have several choices," reads the first commandment. "Scan headers, and delete everything you don’t need to know or act upon materially." It’s okay to ignore an e-mail the same way you might a letter or a phone message.
        And when you are sending messages, remember that they should be short and informal, and that they can’t replace a phone call.

  2. Break free from attachments. The second commandment chides those who send attachments. "An enormous amount of time and energy is wasted in the corporate world by people struggling with incompatible formats, files that never arrived, and attachments that got garbled or stripped off the message."
        Instead, find a good spot on a company intranet for posting and downloading. And on the receiving end, of course, exercise extreme care in opening up files from strangers, to avoid problems like the Melissa virus.

  3. Count to 10, then send. Don’t send e-mail when you’re tired or furious. "E-mail can easily be angry, hurtful, or critical," Morgan says. "It takes a lot of time to undo the damage." Treat e-mail like letters and phone calls; wait for a calmer moment to respond.

  4. There’s nothing like the real thing. Never substitute e-mail for a necessary face-to-face meeting—especially when it comes to reprimanding, rewarding, or firing someone.
        Also remember that misdirected messages can get messy, especially when they are of a personal nature. Morgan recounts the story of a personal note accidentally sent company-wide rather than to one amorous friend (who has been known as "Tiger" ever since.) "I hear stories like these all the time," Morgan says.

  5. A stitch in time. Take advantage of the timesaving bells and whistles your e-mail program offers. Keep an up-to-date address book, and never delete names and addresses. You never know when someone will come back into your digital life.

  6. Break the chain. Chain e-mail is not only tacky, it’s banned from many corporate networks. Consider the bandwidth lost to Bill Gates jokes alone, says Morgan. These beasts with monstrous headers and massive footers should be squelched at all costs.

  7. Rumor, gossip, and hearsay. Don’t pass on rumor or innuendo about real people. This could come back to haunt you. E-mail can be easily forwarded to the wrong person, or worse, to the subject of your non-affection.
        Not only does e-mail have an uncanny ability of being resurrected, as Microsoft knows, it can also be used against you in a court of law.

  8. Do unto others. Flaming—sending an abusive or insulting e-mail— is usually a mistake. Would you say it in person? If not, don’t send it.

  9. Personal bandwidth. Remember the hierarchy when it comes to communications. First there is face-to-face meetings, then phone calls, then voice mail, and then e-mail. Face-to-face meetings have the most impact and e-mail has the narrowest communications bandwidth.
        It’s hard enough to communicate successfully under the best of circumstances, says Morgan. If it’s an important message that can’t be said face-to-face, then pick up the phone, or leave voice mail. Or, if you must, send an e-mail.

  10. No one is perfect. If it absolutely must be perfect, then don’t e-mail it. E-mail can be the Bermuda Triangle of writing. Punctuation, spelling and grammar get mysteriously lost. If your message must be error-free, it should be sent by another medium. If you insist on sending it via e-mail, print it out and go over it line by line for errors.
        But if you find yourself printing your e-mail regularly, it means that either you or the sender misunderstand the chief purpose of the medium, says Morgan.

March 31, 1999
Web posted at: 9:54 a.m. EST (1454 GMT)