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How to avoid e-mail disasters Add to ...

"In response to your manager's latest nagging e-mail, you write your office buddy a scathing critique of the boss's grammar, tacky shirts and bad breath - and then accidentally hit 'Reply All," Rebecca Dube writes today in her article Re: The stupidest message you never meant to send

"After viewing your cousin's vacation photos online, you e-mail: 'Looks like she still hasn't lost that baby weight' to your sister - but you hit 'reply' instead of 'forward,' and now your cousin hates you.

"E-mail disasters like this are the equivalent of 10-car pileups on the highway: preventable, common and messy.

"For those who wreak havoc with a click of the send button, as one Ontario government employee did last week, netiquette experts say there is only one course of action: Beg forgiveness."

So how do you recover from an e-mail disaster and - even more important - how do you avoid one in the first place?

Judith Kallos, author of E-mail Etiquette 101 and creator of NetManners.com , joined us online today from 11 a.m. to noon EDT to take your netiquette questions.

Your questions and Ms. Kallos' answers appear at the bottom of this page.

Judith Kallos is a seasoned "Technology Muse" whose successful consulting practice led her down the road to championing proper e-mail etiquette and technology use - also known as Netiquette.

She began by training her clients on providing a positive perception and having a strong command of the technology they were using. Due to the demand for this information and guidance on the topic, her Netiquette project took on a life of its own which required it be moved to its own Web site in April of 2000. NetManners.com was launched.

Since that time, NetManners.com has grown to be one of the most current sites on the topic of E-mail Etiquette, and Ms. Kallos has written four books ( E-mail Etiquette Made Easy!, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Business E-mail Etiquette, Because Netiquette Matters! and E-mail Etiquette 101).

Editor's Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question. Questions may be edited for length, clarity or relevance. HTML is not allowed. We will not publish questions that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Rebecca Dube, The Globe and Mail: Hello Ms. Kallos, and thanks very much for joining us today to answer questions about netiquette. Even though we all know we should be careful with e-mail, it seems that people always seem to find ways to get themselves into trouble. What are the most common mistakes people make when sending e-mails?

Judith Kallos: Not paying attention to the details! From what words they choose, to how they choose to use them will relay their intent and tone or leave room for misunderstandings. What buttons they click (Reply to All vs. Reply, To: vs. BCc:) can all make a difference as to whether they are perceived positively or end up making an e-faux pas and having to apologize.

Jim Sheppard: I had a wise former boss at my previous employer who urged everyone never to send an e-mail in anger and never to send an important e-mail without taking a break to think about it before hitting "send." He encouraged us when composing all important e-mails (staff notices etc.) to leave the room, get a coffee, walk around the block, then come back and re-read it as if we were receiving it, instead of sending it, and check how it might sound to a recipient before hitting "send." I've always thought that was wise advice. It saved me more than once. Can you suggest any other approaches?

Judith Kallos: That advice is perfect!! What an astute boss! Many times when one gets upset over the content of an e-mail it is because they are reading more into it that is actually there. When you get one of these e-mails, make sure you are not assuming or inserting intent where there is none. Take folks at their word -- nothing more and you may find that what you may be upset about isn't really there.

When replying to an obviously emotional e-mail it is always best to reply in a calm manner, make sure you choose your words carefully and take the high road.

Siri Agrell: Is there any way in an e-mail to signify that you are just joking? If you say something sarcastic or funny and you want to make sure it's received in the spirit you intended, will a smiley or winky face suffice? Is there a "Don't take this the wrong way, I'm not a raging bigot" emoticon?

Judith Kallos: I love the sense of humor! ;-) Yes, use a winky -- but in business use those sparingly as emoticons are more for personal e-mail. That said, if you are talking about a touchy subject and want to ensure the other side knows you are joking a winky will get that across for you.

Susan Sherman from Newmarket Canada writes: The Globe and Mail's article focuses too much on being careful who you send the message to. Whenever you compose an email, you have to assume that it could be read by the last person in the world you would want to read it. Even if you check that you haven't clicked 'reply to all', and check that the person you are writing about isn't on the 'cc' list, you are an idiot if you think the email won't eventually get to them. The person you send it to may forward it, and the next person may also forward it, and after a couple of times the message may move on to another topic and people forget what was said in the email at the bottom. So the bottom line is not to ever write anything unkind, unflattering or compromising in an email to anyone. Period.

Rebecca Dube: Ms. Kallos, can you comment on this advice?

Judith Kallos: That is sound advice! I tell clients to never e-mail anything they wouldn't want their mother to read! The language used in this situation was totally not professional and should not have been used in the first place. The not-paying-attention part just brought the issue to light! This is where e-mail training is so very important so that these type of situations and issues can be discussed and avoided. Even though one should never forward a privately sent e-mail to others or post private e-mail publicly without permission to do so (copyright infringement) people still do. If you count on that you'll never go wrong!

RM, Toronto: I have a friend who emails me incessantly at work just to chat. She's a great friend and I'd hate to hurt her feelings, but I just don't have time for senseless chatter when I'm on the job. I've tried simply not replying, but she doesn't get the point and her emails keep coming. How do I tell her to lay off?

Judith Kallos: Simply let her know that you do not have time for personal chats while at work because of your heavy work load and that you would appreciate her understanding. Also let her know when you are available after hours so she knows the door is still open, so to speak. Using technology is so much about thinking how your actions are going to affect the person on the other side -- not just about what you want to do at any given moment. Your friend isn't thinking about the fact that you are at work and have responsibilities there -- a kind reminder of that should do the trick!

TW, Toronto: I find it really off-putting when a project manager at a company I've given work to sends me emails with improper spelling and grammar. I know it's irrelevant to the project whether or not they can spell. Still, I believe a certain level of professionalism, and attention to detail, affects your professional image, even over email. What are your thoughts? Should I be so irked by this?

Judith Kallos: Would you send out a letter with improper spelling and grammar on business letterhead? No! The same goes for e-mails. When it comes to business e-mails, using proper grammar and spelling is part of giving a professional impression. To not do so lends to the perception of being lazy and/or uneducated.

E-mail programs come with spell checkers and if the program doesn't have one, getting a spell checker plug-in to add to the software is easy and free. I agree; there is no excuse for such things in business e-mails.

Apparently there isn't an e-mail policy in place where these issues are discussed and stressed as mandatory. E-mailing in this manner not only reflects negatively on the sender but the business as well.

Maureen, Toronto: In the world of online dating, breaking up (or telling someone you are no longer interested) by e-mail seems fair, even if you have had a few face-to-face encounters. It all started over email, after all. What do you think?

Judith Kallos: There are times when a phone conversation or in-person meeting are simply the right thing to do. This has nothing to do with how it started; but if you want to be "fair," be a stand-up person, show some character and pick up the phone or meet in person.

Now, if you never met the person face-to-face, then there is no reason to do so now. But if you have, one should be a better person and not take the easy way out by using e-mail for this type of communication. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is the right thing to do.

Randal Oulton from Toronto Canada writes: In the old days, when one put pen to paper, the rule of thumb was never to post on the day it was written a letter with a great deal of emotion in it. Whether the emotion was blazing anger or burning love, you sat on it overnight and had a look at it in the cold hard light of day on the morrow. Maybe your blazing anger tone was stronger than you now felt, a day after you'd slept some of it off. Maybe your burning love tone made you look like a stalker and was guaranteed to drive the object of your affection further in the opposite direction. We can still do that. In the programme I use for email, I have the choice whether I want emails to whoosh out straight away through the server, or to accumulate in a local inbox until I tell it to transfer them to the server to commence their whooshing across the ether. And that's what I do. With age, there are of course fewer missives of great passion, and fewer unguarded moments. But I do catch a lot of typos.

Rasha Mourtada, Toronto: I think that when a person is upset about something that's just happened, there's often an urge to fire off a heated email right away. But once the person's calmed down -- they might regret it. Do you have advice on a waiting period before sending off an emotional email? Is it ever ok to send an emotional email, anyway? Or are those words better reserved for an in-person encounter?

Judith Kallos: Your question has to do with discretion and the specifics of the situation at hand. I advise folks to wait until the next morning before clicking send. You'll be surprised about how you may view the sender's e-mail (maybe you read more into it than is there) and your reply much differently (you will tweak your verbiage -- guaranteed!).

There will be times when emotional e-mails will be sent -- we are human beings after all. The key is to make sure that your intent and tone are that which you desire and that you take the high road no matter how emotional or rude the other side may be.

There will be times where not responding is the best response of all.

Rebecca Dube: Thanks very much for answering these questions on netiquette, Ms. Kallos, and thanks to everyone who submitted questions.

One last question, on something that I'm wondering about -- what should you do if you're the one who gets an e-mail that's not meant for you? This actually happened to me once, a colleague wrote an e-mail complaining about something I had done (a totally unwarranted complaint, of course!) and meant to send it to someone else, but mistakenly sent it to me. I confronted him on it, and he apologized for sending me the e-mail but not for what he said in it. It was more of an annoyance than something blatantly offensive, so I just gave him a raised eyebrow of disapproval and walked away. But in general, how should you respond when you're the wronged party in an e-mail exchange gone awry?

Judith Kallos: Go speak to the person, in person, and ask them if you can have a moment of time to discuss the e-mail. This is not the time to get into a back and forth e-mail exchange or BCc'ing supervisors or bosses to CYA. Doing so will more times than not will have you looking trivial and unprofessional.

You did the right thing by going and talking to him! You took the high road, showed some character and professionalism with him, when apparently he didn't have the ability to offer the same level of respect and courtesy to you. So you come out shining!

It has been great doing this chat -- what fun! If your readers ever have any questions or concerns about how to use e-mail properly, they can ask and join in the conversations over on my Blog at: http://www.EmailEtiquetteMatters.com.

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