Email Etiquette

It is a paradox of modern life that we are more connected with greater numbers of people, but we talk less. Studies report fewer face-to-face interactions in developed nations. Interpersonal chats are becoming briefer.

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All the more essential for good working relationships of successful scientists

As person-to-person communication declines, digital communication picks up the slack. The Internet is the new kingdom of discourse, the principal exchange for matters of substance. When the conversation among scientists turns to the realm of communication, it’s a safe bet that social media is nigh.

All nod knowingly and launch into a commentary about Facebook, Twitter, texting, YouTube, and the proliferation of digital communication vehicles, some science-specific. A favored few of these applications fall into the “killer app” category, so-called because they compel consumers to buy the more costly hardware that these applications need to run on.

Social media gets the ink. But email, be it ever so humble and humdrum, is the killer app, the once and present workhorse, the dominant communication channel that binds the globe. The average U.S. worker sent or received 115 emails daily last year, according to the market research group Radicati. Other research suggests that 25 percent of our workday is consumed attending to email.

And contrary to popular belief, email is tightening its grip. Usage continues to rise. Email accounts outnumber Twitter and Facebook combined by three to one. Texting, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have their devotees, but email has something for everyone—a proven means of exchanging messages that is essentially available to anyone with Internet access. In a recent Reuter’s poll of Internet users in 24 nations, 85 percent of respondents cited email as their top online activity.

Difficult as it is to imagine life without it, email is a relative newcomer that didn’t take off until personal computers became affordable in the 1990s. Its efficiency, convenience, and widespread adoption were transformative. Instead of picking up the phone or calling a meeting, we fired off a quick email. To all appearances, this was the perfect communication medium for an increasingly fast-paced world, and it came with the promise of greater productivity. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty. More than enough to alter a scientist’s career trajectory, effectively turn off potential funders, or make enemies in high places on campus. The Grant Doctor, a regular feature of the journal Science published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), fields inquiries from grant seekers. “I am led to believe,” rails the Grant Doctor, “that many scientists out there are in need of email etiquette and advice on how to properly explain what they want to know.”

But many labs don’t bother to establish formalized email rules. Usage issues generally are off the radar of the research community. Since the technology now seems so rudimentary, scientists may be loath to acknowledge they lack total mastery.

The problem lies not in the mechanics of transmitting email. It’s about etiquette—manners and social norms. Scientists’ exacting research skills are not matched by an equal emphasis on interpersonal skills. This, in turn, is compounded by more diverse laboratory staffs, with different generations and cultures working side by side, each with different sets of values and expectations about what constitutes acceptable behavior.

So as the decline in the art of interpersonal conversation erodes social skills and email assumes a greater social function, email etiquette becomes all the more essential for the good working relationships of successful scientists.

An email is more than a casual digital conversation. It is part letter and part instant message, a still-evolving hybrid, and the shift to a more active email interaction requires new skills and knowledge—like why email and social media don’t mix.

Seepage from conventional social media “slang” will return to bite the casual emailer, say researchers. Such slang—deviations from standard English such as abbreviations and linguistic shortcuts (substituting “ur” for “your,” or “lol” for “laughing out loud”)—can cause email recipients to question the sender’s drive, intelligence, and competence. Mistakes in grammar and punctuation don’t help either, indicating as they do that the writer is less than goal-oriented. According to a study in the 2012-2013 Connecticut College Psychology Journal (McLean, Boyland, Pierson, and Falk: “Impressions of Intelligence and Personality Traits Due to Internet Slang”), slang also influences judgments about the sender’s trustworthiness, among other key attributes.

And these negative perceptions are more likely to persist absent face-to-face interaction. Email is a “lean” communication process that omits the visual and voice cues and body language that humans use to judge and evaluate others face-to-face. Telephone and video communications are richer sources of cues, but with email, the printed word stands alone, subject to misinterpretation.

The generational divide bears on digital communication practices in other ways. Email eliminates boundaries that once kept users and senders at a respectable arm’s length. College students who barrage lab instructors with inappropriate requests and demands, thereby assuming a dominant position in the relationship, do not endear themselves by upsetting the traditional balance of power—another manifestation of the less than laudatory stereotype attached to the so-called millennial generation born during the 1980s and 1990s.

Millennials grew up on social media and deserve much of the credit for championing its expanded use in the scientific community to improve outreach and dialogue with external publics. But their freewheeling approach can conflict with the more formalized etiquette of proper email that more senior researchers have grown accustomed to. Salutations like “Hey there” and sign-offs like “Later” risk disrespecting the recipient.

At research universities where large class size precludes one-on-one interaction, email is often the sole means of student-teacher communication. Since students are so adept at digital communication, email training is often deemed unnecessary. When guidelines are circulated, they cover security and legal issues.

According to a New York Times article, faculty is bombarded with email rife with etiquette, grammar, and content miscues. Improper salutations are the most common complaint. Female faculty are addressed as Ms./ Mrs. instead of Dr./Professor, for example.

Email emboldens students to ask favors they might not seek in a face-to-face interaction, such as grade begging.

Many email issues at large research settings can be resolved by a minimal investment, according to a study in the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. A single two-minute training session was found to produce a significant increase in students’ professional formatting of email to faculty. Study results showed miscues arose from ignorance, not willfulness.

Email has its limitations. In this digital deluge, the written letter still has greater gravitas. Dr. Bradley Kirkman, an international business consultant who heads up the Department of Management, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship at North Carolina State’s Poole College of Management, maintains that email “hasn’t been very effective for entire teams to communicate” and is “inefficient in terms of keeping a linear track of ongoing communication.” Complicated issues can become problematic. Sometimes the best email is no email, says science communication consultant Dennis Meredith. “If someone flames or says something totally and obviously incorrect, it will self-correct. No need to chime in. Let that email twist in the wind.”

But when you do decide to use it, common email hot spots won’t flare up when scientists practice proper etiquette. Starting from the top, here are the hot spots to watch for:

1) The subject line is the hook. Emails sent to busy lab managers are apt to be ignored unless the subject line clearly and simply conveys why the email deserves attention. (If the sender uses an unprofessional return address like SpoiledPrince@gmail.com, all bets are off.)

In long chains or threads of emails, Meredith advises changing the subject line as the subject changes, to spare all the aggravation, for example, of looking for a chart inserted midway through a string with a “Vacation plan” subject line.

2) Salutations trip up many senders. Misspelling a name is the kiss of death. “Dr.” is correct for recipients with a doctoral or medical degree. If someone signs an email using their first name, it is OK to so address them in subsequent emails.

Watch for cultural variations. In Germany and Portugal for instance, titles are used more rigidly than in the U.K. or U.S.

3) Content that is murky, dense, and/or tedious vexes recipients. The first line should contain the most important element of the message. Don’t try to write the great American novel. Concise writing takes more effort but improves the odds that recipients will actually read the email, especially if content is broken up into short paragraphs.

Capitalize and punctuate correctly. Avoid social media conventions. USING CAPITAL LETTERS IS TANTAMOUNT TO “SCREAMING,” while piling on exclamation marks verges more on child’s play than professional communication!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Play it straight. It’s probably not as funny as you think. Written sarcasm falls flat.

Meredith has observed “an affectation, particularly among higher-level (personnel), to send emails with abbreviations, bad grammar, poor punctuation, etc.,” in order “to seem busy.” Do not emulate them.

Avoid offering personal religious and political opinions. Above all else, strive not to waste anyone’s precious time.

4) Improperly signing off can spoil an otherwise fine email. “Peace” is not on the long list of acceptable choices. “Best” seems totally safe.

End with a signature block including sender’s full name, contact information, and pertinent professional data.

5) Proof before sending. Reading it aloud is best. Are you fully aware of everyone the email is being sent to? Double-check cc and bcc functions.

6) Other points:

  • Remember this: Email lasts forever. You cannot take it back. Many fallen public figures wish they could.
  • Think “meta,” advises Meredith, meaning “not only who needs to see a piece of information, but who you want to know that you have sent an email about the information,” like administrators.
  • It is impolite not to respond. If busy, reply and say you’ll answer fully ASAP.
  • Many millennials, says Meredith, “are essentially abandoning email in favor or texting and tweeting,” so lab managers should alert all staff before sending emails.
  • Consider using email to thank people or recognize them for achievements, or as a statement of record to avoid misunderstandings, says Meredith.

Much ado is made about the communication preferences and other behaviors of different generations. The social media set seems more mischievous. Ask Mark Sarvary, director, Investigative Biology Laboratories at Cornell University, who oversees more than 800 18- and 19-yearold students and their graduate lab instructors.

When breeches of etiquette pop up, Sarvary hammers them down, as when a student digitally stalked a teaching assistant and complained to Sarvary when the instructor posted an “inappropriate” tattoo online, or when students objected to an instructor venting on Facebook about certain undergrads. Sarvary considered the former an invasion of privacy and the latter unethical.

The millennials’ embrace of social media is just one of their differences with baby boomers and Generation X (who came of age during the socially chaotic 1960s and 1970s). Millennials’ what’s-in-it-for-me approach can appear to fly in the face of etiquette’s emphasis on consideration of cohorts.

Sarvary’s students learn team building by working together in groups of three on projects. “So their collaboration affects their grade, and it teaches them proper etiquette because they cannot dominate the process,” he says.

Jim Austin, editor of the AAAS career development publication Science Careers, thinks the greater challenge for lab managers is multicultural, not intergenerational.

Different generations approach the challenge to build a life and career “from different directions, but our common challenges…have a homogenizing effect that tends to obliterate labels and early experience. We’re different, but we function in much the same way.

“The goal of any manager is to…get the most out of the team, with its unique composition. You do that by maintaining a focus on the common goal, ideally in a low-key way that allows room for personal/professional expression…. You deal with individuals, not groups…. Hire good people, and manage the people you have, and we’ll all be fine.”

Published In

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Designing for Science

Published: July 10, 2014

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