Denver Bar Association
June 2007
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Twenty-First Century E-tiquette for E-mail: Part deux: How to know what you’re doing

by Leonard I. Frieling

Question: How may Internet mail list subscribers does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: 1,923. One to change the light bulb, and to post to the list that the bulb has been changed. Fourteen to share their thoughts on the changing of the light bulb. Forty-two to say "I agree," with no clue as to with what they are in agreement, the changing of the bulb, or any of the 14 thoughts on the changing of the bulb. Two hundred thirty-three to say "good job on that light bulb." Thirty-eight to start a thread (discussion) on the merits of changing light bulbs at all. After all, the second law of thermodynamics requires the bulb to burn out sometime. ... You get the idea.

Have you ever been misunderstood? Did you ever have a partner (business or personal) respond in a way that you did not see coming? Had you thought that you’d expressed yourself clearly? Did you mumble?

We all have been misunderstood (often, this starts at birth). Even a skilled listener (like an attorney) does not always hear correctly. Every time I hear "denied" I think that I’ve heard "granted" — at least when I’m making the motion.

In conversation, being understood is tied to speech and body language, which include pitch, tone, pace, volume, timing of response, facial expressions, and more. In spite of this plethora of communication skills at my disposal, my darling wife Debi misunderstands me daily. Hourly.

In any form of communication, especially e-mail, we want to say what we want to say, and we want it heard the way that we intended for it to be heard. Easier said than done.

Happily, there are unique tools available to us for computer communication. Some I regularly use in my written communications. Some, I’ve made up. Call me a rabble-rouser. You won’t be the first.

Tools for enhancing expressions via e-mail (known as "emoticons") vary from primitive smiles :) and the frown :( to an array of special software pictures. One can live a fulfilled and well-understood life with the most basic tools. Rule one: CAPITAL LETTERS ARE ONLY FOR SHOUTING! Rule two: A simple smile <g> goes a long way. A very big grin <VBG> is not much harder to type. Rule three: Does spelling count? You bet it does. Grammar and punctuation count also!

With e-mail, we communicate individually — both professionally and personally — as well as with groups, such as the listservs to which we belong. In the "old days," we might have risked offending one person at a time or perhaps at most 100 people at once by saying something disagreeable at a town meeting. Technology has left us facing the risk of offending as many as 1,000 people on a statewide listserv, or offending thousands on a national listserv. The price and cost of being misunderstood has gone up. We have no choice but to take additional precautions against being misunderstood.

Listservs are extremely powerful tools. While not secure, and probably not protected by privilege, the contents may fall under the umbra of confidentiality. Lists permit large numbers of individuals with a common interest — and ideally a basic understanding or agreement as to format and parameters — to share ideas and to seek advice and input from perhaps hundreds or more comrades.

Just as we rely on Robert’s Rules of Order to permit efficient group meetings, there are some basic E-mail Listserv Rules of Order. I will set out 10 (such a popular number for lists) suggested ELROs in this and my following columns.

Rule four: think. Before you hit "send," do you really intend to send the e-mail to the entire list of 900 people, or would it perhaps be better to send the letter to one or two people? Remember that sending a single e-mail to a listserv of 500 people is the same as sending 500 e-mails. And we think we are not spammers!

Rule five: think again. Computers are fast. My brain is slow. Compensate for the difference in speed. The best joke in the world may be funny, but inappropriate.

As much as I love receiving jokes informally, I hate getting jokes on listservs. The larger the list, the more important it is to decide whether something really needs to be posted to the entire list. So, how do you respond to an urgent e-mail that suggests a telephonic response, privately? Easy! You look at the "signature" on the e-mail. If the sender doesn’t have a signature and you can’t figure out the person’s e-mail address to reply individually, that person doesn’t merit a response. All e-mail software (clients) are set up for this feature, which will automatically insert in every outgoing e-mail the sender’s name, address, phone, e-mail and fax — if you set it up. Set it up! Let’s call that rule six. Next month: rule seven, et seq.

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