My article, “Teach users to avoid e-mail's five pitfalls,” outlined five disadvantages of e-mail that many end users are unaware of or often ignore. Specifically, e-mail is:
- Not secure: Its contents are open to anyone who handles it.
- Open to abuse: Scams, mass junk mailings, and deceptive advertising can be delivered to a computer just as easily as to a brick-and-mortar mailbox.
- Potentially harmful: E-mail is probably the easiest method of delivering malicious material to individuals and organizations.
- Often impersonal: I know e-mail is a great way to avoid others, but some conversations need to take place face to face.
- Open to misinterpretation: When talking to someone in person or on the telephone, the tone and inflection of the speaker's voice convey as much, if not more, meaning than their words. E-mail lacks this ability, even with the use of emoticons.
TechRepublic members responded in force to this article, and I’d like to share their comments. Due to the volume of feedback, it's not possible to publish every response. However, I believe the ones presented here represent the best balance of all submissions.
In Response offers a weekly roundup of feedback from TechRepublic members intended to help inform you and your peers about critical issues in the world of IT.
TechRepublic members respond
IT4BG: Think before you click send
“I teach basic e-mail to new employees and one of the last points I make is that e-mail should be thought of as public. The comments you make to one of your coworkers may wind up in the CEO's Inbox.”
devGuy: Another e-mail pitfall
“[Another e-mail pitfall is] accidentally sending an e-mail to the wrong person (or worse yet, wrong people). Not only should we read the body of the e-mail (twice) before sending, also check the ’to’ and ’cc’ lists to be sure they are correct. Sometimes this can be a mere annoyance; other times, it can be disastrous.”
Ted D.: Impersonal? That's up to the writer.
“When it comes to ‘terribly complicated’ communications, I find e-mail infinitely superior to the telephone and to direct conversation.
“I beg my users to e-mail me regarding problems. This relieves me of the chore of being my own stenographer, and it stimulates the user to think more clearly about the problem. E-mail is neither more nor less impersonal than any other typed message. (Check out the memos that cross your desk on the way to the trashcan). But explaining to the user that a monitor will work better if it's plugged in to some power source is not really demanding of much intimacy or tenderness of style.
“Terribly complicated and important issues are ideally suited to e-mail communication. The writer will likely be more systematic in expressing her/his thoughts, and the recipient can read the e-mail relieved of the duty of grasping the main points of one who is 'thinking out loud (a.k.a. speaking).’
“Given the choice, I would dispense with meetings and voice mail and have us all conduct our discussions in writing. If a message is unclear, ask for a clarification—by e-mail. Then everybody involved has a written record of the topic at hand. I'm not sure what 'getting personal' has to do with any of this, but whether an e-mail is intended as a love letter or as a set of technical instructions, the style and content are entirely up to the writer. E-mail is no more personal or impersonal than a Bic pen and a pad of paper.”
Wayne M.: E-mail is by definition impersonal
“E-mail is impersonal, because there is no direct person-to-person interaction. Also, 'impersonal' is different than 'not cordial.' With e-mail, there is no emotional content and no feedback between parties. There is also time shifting; the message may not be read until long after it is written. This is what is meant by impersonal. Certainly using a friendly tone is important and you can personalize the message for the recipient, but these are different topics than e-mail being impersonal. With e-mail, you are interacting with a machine, not a human being. Thus, by definition, it is impersonal. This is not to say that e-mail is bad; it is merely a criteria to evaluate when determining if e-mail is an appropriate medium for a message.”
Vince: Outlook is not a word processor
“I also teach my users not to use Outlook as a word processor for two reasons:
- For some reason, when you're in Outlook, it just doesn't seem as important to craft your writing. It's too immediate. We're all used to jamming messages through at breakneck speed. Somehow, taking the time to launch your word processing app forces you to take your time with your writing as well.
- If you compose important items entirely in Outlook (a lengthy proposal, for example) you stand a greater chance of losing your work. One little glitch in the network when using Outlook clients in an Exchange environment, and the whole app can freeze—and your work is gone. True, you can save your e-mail as you go along to recover it from Drafts later, but this isn't as intuitive for most users, at least in my experience. Whereas they're used to saving every two minutes when working in Word.”
Michelle36: Suspicious subject lines
“We had to start telling our users to please look at the subject line of the e-mail. Sometimes that alone can be a sign of an incoming virus. We just had a love letter worm infect all of the pictures on our network because one of our users opened an attachment in an e-mail that had a subject line 'US presidents, spies and secrets,' and it was from a local restaurant.”
Do you have a great way of teaching the appropriate, effective use of e-mail? Share it with your fellow TechRepublic members. E-mail me your story or click here to join this discussion.
Bill Detwiler has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the social research and energy industries. He has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Louisville, where he has also lectured on computer crime and crime prevention.