- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2001

Electronic mail is a tricky thing. Just ask the president. Or the Metropolitan Police Department.

A few days before his inauguration, President Bush "signed off" from e-mailing his closest friends because he feared such communications would become part of the public record and thus he could not be as candid as he'd like. As with his predecessors, he will have to rely on the telephone or handwritten notes to accomplish the job.

The developing story in the police department apparently involves messages exchanged between officers via computers in their patrol cars. Some highly offensive language was reportedly used, and the investigation continues.

These items bring up something that's been on my mind for quite some time. It appears that a lot of folks could use some reminders about e-mail and how they should use it.

Some initial observations:

Of all the buttons on a computer, the one that seems hardest to find is the "any" key (as in the "press any key" instructions of computer manuals and software programs). The easiest, conversely, seems to be the "send" key. Far too much e-mail is dispatched without any serious, conscious thought given to the matter.

It is also amazingly easy to write and send an e-mail without considering how words "read" before someone else's eyes. The late Rudolf Flesch of Columbia University said: "speaking is thinking out loud; writing should be speaking on paper." Unfortunately, what is often missed when speech becomes print are the intonations, accents and nuances we get when directly speaking to people, either one-on-one or in a group. No amount of "emoticons" or "Just Kidding!s" can easily make up for that in some cases. Words can wound, especially when too quickly tossed around.

E-mail can also be permanent and wide-ranging. This was discovered recently in London when a rather personal e-mail sent from a young woman to a man she'd dated (let's just say it's something I would not write down) was forwarded to six persons as a lark but ended up on millions of computer screens around the globe. The man who worked in a law firm, no less was reprimanded by his employer, the woman had to go into hiding. The story made international headlines and some readers may be familiar with the tale.

What you and I send on e-mail may not have such wide-ranging consequences, but it also makes sense for us to remember that eyes other than our own could likely see a given e-mail message, particularly if the subject or contents are rather pungent.

By now, the lessons should be clear: As someone expressed it, don't write anything in an e-mail you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the morning newspaper. But beyond that, it's worth remembering that electronic mail really is different from what we might say in casual conversation, or in a business meeting.

Others in Washington, notably etiquette expert Leticia Baldridge, have written about this before. Often their complaint is that people are too sloppy, too quick and too insistent in their e-mails. If someone doesn't respond in a second, there's disappointment. Phrasing (not to mention spelling and grammar) is neglected in the rush to communicate.

One of the areas where such missteps seem to be most prominent are Internet discussion groups. I've seen several, including those where the members profess a deep and abiding religious conviction, where the language and attitudes are downright nasty. A recent exchange among some people discussing a topic made my skin crawl for its lack of courtesy.

Perhaps the greatest thing we can do to stem the rising tide of irritating e-mail is to merely pause, reread what we're about to send, and really think about the contents. Can something be said better? Is there a way to blunt a harsh message, if directness is required? Will the recipient be better off for having read this?

Are the writings of Mrs. Baldridge and others enough to spark the revolutionary changes some of us hope to see? Perhaps not, given the general trend of civil discourse in society these days (toss a dart at any congressional debate and you'll see what I mean). However, it's worth making the case for better e-mails nonetheless. If no one resists these trends, I have to wonder whether e-mail will remain the tremendous boon that we now see it as being, and to lose that convenience would be the true shame.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com. Talk back live to Mark every Thursday from 8 to 9 p.m., Eastern time, on www.adrenaline-radio.com.

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