The University Record, December 10, 1997

Campaign fights e-mail irritation with education


Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from one by Theresa Hofer of the Information Technology Division in the November ITDigest.

You've been working full-speed-ahead with no breaks for three days and just got out of back-to-back meetings.

You take a quick break to check your e-mail and read a forwarded message from a colleague. It's yet another copy of a chain message. The first four times someone forwarded this supposedly important message to you, you just deleted it. Now you've had enough, so you fire off an angry reply to your colleague with copies to everyone else in the group to whom the message was forwarded.

Sound familiar? Situations like these prompted the Information Technology Division (ITD) to launch an educational campaign on electronic communications this year.

Inexperience, not malice

"Most of the mistakes and bad behavior that we see are not the result of malice, but of inexperience," says Joseph Saul, an ITD research assistant who has studied e-mail etiquette. Many people seem inexperienced at using e-mail to communicate with groups of people rather than with individuals.

Sending an e-mail message to one person is similar to leaving a message on an answering machine or writing a note to someone. Sending a message to a large e-mail group, however, is more like posting a flier or publishing an article. It requires greater communication skills‹the ability to write in ways that will make sense to the recipients of the message.

Avoiding misunderstandings

According to Gwen Reichbach, the ITD program manager coordinating the educational campaign, the campaign's purpose is "to help people be responsible users of electronic communication, understand what responsible use is, and communicate more effectively."

Many misunderstandings arise simply because it is harder to convey something in writing than it is in person or over the phone. Without cues such as facial expression or tone of voice to let them know a message is in jest.

Other misunderstandings occur because new users are unfamiliar with the standard conventions of e-mail, such as including part of the message to which you are replying to provide context.

To help correct these misunderstandings, the campaign uses a series of posters that contrast some electronic communication "myths" with their corresponding "realities," presenting key concepts humorously, succinctly and memorably.

"What we're trying to do with the campaign is get people to think about the issues," Saul says. "You may not have educated them to the point where they feel confident making the decision, but you've won the battle if they understand that there's a decision to be made."

For more information contact Reichbach, 764-8176, or gmreich@umich.edu.