Yes and no. When Virginia Shea first defined the rules of Netiquette, she based one of her core principles on norms of polite conversation: “Never mail or post anything you wouldn’t say to your reader’s face.”
Patricia O’Conner also uses the rules of conversation as a model for email etiquette. In an interview with NPR’s Terence Smith, she explained why an email should begin with a greeting. “If I met you on the street and we knew one another, we wouldn’t walk up and just, bam, start a conversation in the middle of nowhere. There would be a greeting, there would be some sort of pas de deux between us, then we’d explain ourselves, and then there would be a leave taking.” Without a polite greeting and close, she says, emails can seem too abrupt, even “brutish.”
However, face-to-face conversation is an imperfect model for emails. In conversations, our tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions reinforce what we mean and signal how we feel. Email lacks these nonverbal cues. As a result, messages can easily be misinterpreted. In a series of studies, Nicholas Epley and Justin Kruger found that people routinely overestimate their ability to communicate by email. Sarcastic comments are particularly likely to be misunderstood; readers interpreted them correctly only 56 percent of the time.
In face-to-face conversation, if something we say gives offense, we can see the other person’s pained expression and apologize or correct any misunderstanding on the spot. In an email exchange, the first clue we’ve given offense might be an angry reply. Anger expressed in email often comes across more strongly than the sender intended and email messages are one-sided, so a simple misunderstanding can easily spiral into a conflict.
To prevent this, it’s helpful to think of an email as more like a letter than a conversation. In conversation, we often speak quickly, without taking time to think. In letters, we tend to weigh our words more carefully and take time to consider how our audience is likely to receive our message. Careful writers review letters before mailing them; taking time to reread message from a reader’s point of view before sending them can prevent misunderstandings. Thinking of an mail as a short letter makes us more likely to use our best spelling, grammar, and manners.
Is email more like a conversation or a letter? For most Americans, business emails have elements of both. What’s appropriate to include in your email? Anything you’d say in polite conversation. How should you communicate your message? With the same care you’d use in writing a letter. When in doubt, remember that it’s better to be too formal than too informal, particularly when writing to someone from a more formal culture or someone you don’t know well.
For more about writing better business emails, see the resources at WriteBetterAtWork.com.
Notes: Virginia Shea’s “The Core Rules of Netiquette” is available at http://www.albion.com/bookNetiquette/0963702513p32.html
Patricia O’Connor’s comments in “You’ve Got Email” by Terence Smith, broadcast January 6, 2003, are available at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/science/jan-june03/email_1-6.html
Epley and Kruger’s work is summarized in “Egocentrism Over E-Mail: Can We Communicate as Well as We Think?” (2005): http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/nicholas.epley/Krugeretal05.pdf
Raymond Friedman and Steven C. Currall discuss “conflict spirals” in “Email Escalation: Dispute Exacerbating Elements of Electronic Communication” (2002): http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=304966
Eric Weiner contrasts American and European views of email in a 2005 Slate article, “Euromail: What Germans Can Teach Us About E-Mail”: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/how_they_do_it/2005/03/euromail.html