How do I use email most effectively and appropriately?

Email interactions, lacking supporting cues such as body language and inflection of voice, often go badly wrong. Be careful what you say via email. Treat it as a memo or letter that can be passed on to other recipients. Here are some useful ground rules:

  • Answer messages promptly, if only to acknowledge receipt, so the sender knows their message got through.
  • Clearly identify yourself and your affiliations.
  • Be careful with attempts at humour, sarcasm, satire, and other witticisms.
  • Don't use discriminatory language about someone or make remarks that may constitute harassment.
  • Never email confidential information, such as passwords and credit card numbers. Email is not a secure method of communication and can be easily forwarded to an unintended recipient.
  • Don't spread rumours via email.
  • Be sure to label strongly worded statements as opinion.
  • Resist the urge to fire off an immediate retort to a message that makes you angry. Sleep on it, clear your head, then respond to the substance, not the emotion, of the message, using calm words.
  • Silence may well be the best policy; it takes two to argue.
  • It's usually best to abandon email if a correspondence goes wrong. Pick up the phone instead, arrange a meeting, talk to your instructor, supervisor or the Harassment Office -- whatever seems appropriate in the circumstances.

Could your email come back to haunt you?

Email can and often does become the main player in disputes, harassment cases and even law suits. So how can you be sure your email will not come back to haunt you?

The most important thing to remember about email is that it may exist in various locations. Even if you think you have deleted your email, it may live on, unbeknownst to you:

  • Email may travel through several computers to get from sender to recipient. These computers likely have backup procedures and your messages may end up on the backup tapes of any or all of them.
  • A message sent by you may be forwarded to someone you didn't intend it to go to, or to a mailing list containing hundreds, even thousands of recipients.
  • Your message may be printed out and given to someone, or posted on a bulletin board.
  • You can never be sure where your email will end up.

The second important thing to realize about email is that people will often write things they would never dream of saying face to face or in memos. Careless statements, unsubstantiated rumours, discriminatory remarks and threats are much more likely to appear in email messages than in paper memos.

The bottom line is, be careful what you put into your email messages in the first place. Here are some rules of thumb in addition to the email ground rules above:

  • Don't make indefensible statements or observations about colleagues and/or subordinates.
  • Think ahead before you write an email message. Will you be able to live with your words 24 hours, a week, a year from now?
  • Be careful about attempting to explain your motives via email. The recipient may misinterpret your words or infer a tone that was not intended. Your message may fall into other hands without a supporting context that would have clarified things.
  • Don't send confidential information via email.
  • House-clean regularly. Move old email messages to the Trash folder. Make sure you know what you are keeping.
  • Know where your email is stored and for how long.

General guidelines for email readability

  • Fill in the Subject: line with a descriptive subject.
  • Try to avoid using all captials (e.g., "WHERE IS THE MEETING?"), as this is often seen as shouting in an email.
  • Keep your messages short; people tend to glaze over long messages.
  • Proofread your message before sending it.
  • When replying, include enough of the original message in your reply to keep the reply clear, but delete portions of the original that are not relevant.
  • Try to keep the file size of attachments to a minimum.

How do I deal with unsolicited or offensive email?

Approximately 95% of all incoming junk mail is discarded prior to arriving to your SFU Connect email inbox, or are marked with "**SPAM**" in the subject line and automatically placed into your Junk folder (in SFU Connect's web interface). Do not reply to spam messages, as doing so will only confirm that your email address is active, resulting in more junk mail.

If you receive mail from a specific individual that repeatedly offends or annoys you, send a firm but polite reply to the sender, clearly stating that the mail is unwelcome and asking the person to stop. If the sender persists, report it to the IT Services Help Desk by clicking here.

As a sender, failure to respect a correspondent's wishes or irresponsible use of email could result in your SFU computing ID being disabled. Chain letters are considered to be nuisance mail and will clog the system; do not send them.