Santa Monica College


E-mail netiquette: tips...


Don't Be Misunderstood (e-mail tips): "I sincerely believe that you understand what you thought I meant, but I'm not sure you realize that what you read was not what I intended to write."

E-mail is a wonderful form of communication. It's best features are that it is nearly instantaneous, you can address a whole bunch of people at once, and it theoretically lasts forever. Ironically, those are also it's worst features.

There are a few practices you can observe that will help you communicate more effectively via e-mail. These practices have evolved over time as people have become accustomed to using the Internet. The practices are called "Netiquette," and they represent the collective knowledge of what works and what doesn't work when people use e-mail to get their messages across.

How one views and uses e-mail varies from person to person. To some, it is an indispensable tool, to others it is an unavoidable distraction to getting their "real" work done. Like it or not, it is here to stay and will likely become even more widely used in the years to come. It is important that you learn how to use it effectively. You should strive to avoid angering or offending people; use e-mail to strengthen, not sabotage, your relationships with others.

As with all forms of communication, know your audience. With e-mail, it's also important to select your audience appropriately. Just because you *can* send someone e-mail doesn't mean you *should* do so. To the extent that there is a first rule, it might well be: "Respect the time and attention of others." Only send e-mail to those who need the information you're providing (or have otherwise indicated their interest in receiving it). Unless you have established a prior relationship with someone, any e-mail messages you send to that person are "unsolicited" and are deemed unwanted. E-mail is rarely the best way to introduce yourself; use it to follow up or supplement personal contact. Never send unsolicited, bulk e-mail messages (aka "spam"). Avoid broadcasts unless absolutely necessary.

Only your words are transmitted, not your tone of voice. Generally, you should try to be both professional and tactful. Unless someone knows you well, they may neither recognize nor appreciate your attempts at humor or sarcasm. Never write what you wouldn't say aloud; aspire to be courteous, even in response to rudeness. E-mail may be your best (and last) chance to restore civility to a difficult situation. Calm down and take a moment to consider the appropriateness of your responses.

Make sure your subject line relates to the matter at hand; also, use the same or similar subject when replying, so the original sender knows to what you are referring. Leaving the subject blank makes it difficult to sort and search later.

Always begin the body of an e-mail message with a salutation: a verbal handshake greeting your recipient. People usually like to see their own name in print, but you can also attach a "Hi" or "Hello" or "Howdy" to make it even friendlier. Use short paragraphs, broken up with blank lines, and stick to the point. There are few things as frustrating as trying to extract nuggets of information from globs of rambling text. Avoid using all capital letters, as this is the Internet equivalent of shouting.

You may use asterisks occasionally (avoid overusing them, however) to surrounding a word or phrase for emphasis: e.g., This is *most* important. Many people use -- and to some extent, rely on -- emoticons, symbols peppered throughout a message that convey the writer's mental state or attitude. See for a definitive list of emoticons. By convention, many e-mail authors use commonly-accepted acronyms as shorthand. The following list is not exhaustive by any means but reflects some of the acronyms more frequently used in e-mail messages today:

  • BFN bye for now
  • BTW by the way
  • FAQ frequently asked question
  • FYI for your information
  • IMHO in my humble opinion
  • IMO in my opinion
  • IOW in other words
  • LOL laughing out loud -or- lots of luck
  • NRN no reply necessary
  • OIC oh, I see!
  • OTOH on the other hand
  • ROTFL rolling on the floor laughing
  • RTFM read the [fine] manual/message
  • SNAFU situation normal, all [fouled] up
  • TTYL talk to you later
  • TYVM thank you very much
  • WYSIWYG what you see is what you get

If you expect your message to be met with disagreement, take the opportunity to first restate what both you and your recipient *can* agree on. Be willing to agree to disagree. Make it a practice to always carbon-copy anyone mentioned by name: there is nothing harder to defend against than things attributed to you without your knowledge. If you find that this practice discourages you from discussing certain topics, then perhaps you need to consider whether your topics are appropriate, especially memorialized in written form, as all e-mail messages are. Remember that policy prohibits you from using e-mail to harass or annoy. It must be free from material that is sexually explicit, profane, obscene, defamatory, or otherwise illegal. If you personally attack someone (aka "flame"), or engage in a mutual attack (aka "flame war"), substantiated truth is your only defense, and sometimes even that isn't enough to excuse this kind of behavior.

Be courteous to a fault; your own words can come back to haunt you. Do not rely on e-mail communication being private or under your own control. Since messages can be repeatedly forwarded or printed, pretend that your sending a copy of each message you compose for publication to the _Corsair_ or other local newspaper. You might try to use the Outlook "recall" tool to retrieve a sent message, but if any of your recipients have already read the message, they will simply get another message informing them of your attempted recall. This just calls attention to your blunder. Therefore, review your message carefully before sending them, and as a courtesy, always run the spell checker to catch glaring (yet strangely elusive) errors. [Note: your "*" and "_" symbols make for easier reading, but they may trip up your spell checker.] Be aware that messages sent to you may have delivery and/or read receipts attached to them. This enables a sender to know when you received or read a message. Unless you have a previous or ongoing agreement, though, it's generally considered an invasion of privacy to use these tracking tools unilaterally.

There are also practices to observe when replying to a message. Include the relevant portions of earlier correspondence, either in a blocked paragraphs or marked paragraphs (typically, the ">" annotation is used), so your recipient knows to what you are referring. Make sure the header information (sender, time, and subject) is included; use bracketed comments to indicate elision: e.g., [snip] or [...] or [cut]. Avoid using Reply-All to messages sent via a distribution list. Consider instead moving the discussion to a Public Folder. When sending to a list, consider setting the "Have replies sent to" option to your own e-mail address, so recipients won't accidentally send a Reply-All. Don't be a "me, too" or "hear, hear" ditto-head when replying to a list-addressed message. Use file attachments only when you have prearranged the transmission; never open a file attachment that comes from an unknown source or in a suspicious manner. Check with the Postmaster before issuing virus alerts -- many are hoaxes or have already been inoculated against.

E-mail on campus should be used primarily for work-related functions. Personal use is tolerated if it is minimal and is not a distraction from work. Don't immediately forward jokes or other non-work messages; chances are your recipients have seen it already, or else they may find it distracting (or embarrassing) to have such a message pop up on their workstation. Never participate in chain letters: they are the ultimate waste of resources. Furthermore, it's also a matter of courtesy to obstain the sender's permission before you forward any messages you have received.

Using the "DD MON YEAR" date format (e.g., 24 JUN 1989) is the least likely to be misinterpreted. In general, try to consider different interpretations of what you're proposing to send. Strip your message of ambiguity, and only if it remains true, taken in its worst possible light, should you proceed with sending it. Better to spend time at the outset clarifying the facts than defending yourself later following a misunderstanding. E-mail is "asynchronous" -- no one but you can interrupt yourself in advacne with a "hold on a minute" response to any of your statements. Giving your recipient a chance to formulate a response, rather than presuming how he or she will respond, will help make the communication more synchronous (and thereby more harmonious).

Finally, use a signature at the end of each message, so recipient will know how to reply to you by means other than e-mail. Don't always expect a reply. See ("Why haven't I replied to your e-mail?") for some insight on this subject. Silence does not mean someone agrees with you, disagrees with you, or is ignoring you -- silence is silence. If you expect a reply, make sure you end your message inviting that response or letting your recipient know that you will take no further action until you've received an answer. This is not bullying, but it's a courteous way of informing your recipient of what you expect and what you plan to do next.


Last Updated: December 1st, 2000 

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