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Navigating the email age

From “netiquette” to an “Email Charter,” web gurus are prescribing the do’s and don’ts of communication in the 21st century

[caption id="attachment_495" align="aligncenter" width="406" caption="As the letter faces near extinction, have we lost all sense of courtesy and etiquette?"][/caption]

Think of history’s great love stories, and what comes to mind? (Well, apart from all the brooding looks and intrigue and dagger wielding). I can't help but think of letters. Until a few decades ago, hand-written correspondence was the basis for any worthwhile courtship.

In today’s age of email, SMS, and 140-character limits, the letter - romantic or otherwise - has nearly given up the ghost. There is much to decry about its downfall. No more rushing to check the mailbox, or fumbling with a letter opener. Now I’m excited simply to receive coupons in the mail.

But the most alarming development to come out of the letter’s demise is a loss of style and etiquette. Still in its infancy, email communication is casual by nature, making it a veritable minefield for style missteps. It’s not unusual to receive a message written entirely in lower case - or the dreaded colored font - and writers often stumble over whether to open with a formal ‘Dear’ or opt for a more casual ‘Hi.’

Believe it or not, some have made it their mission to instate etiquette in the age of email. They call it “netiquette.”

“How you will be perceived, the type of human being that you are or for that matter are not, your credibility and your levels of professionalism and ethics will be judged by how you choose to communicate with others online,” writes Judith Kallos, creator of NetManners.com

Her remedy? Follow ten common courtesies for email communication, including avoiding all caps, and ignoring nasty emails.

According to some, however, it’s not a loss of etiquette that is so alarming, but an increase in volume. Take Chris Anderson, curator of TED Talks, who has drafted an Email Charter to combat the deluge that is constantly flooding our inboxes. Calling it an “idea worth spreading,” Anderson’s manifesto started out as a blog post that was quickly read by more than 45,000 people.

The Charter prescribes 10 commandments for email writers, including the need to respect recipients’ time - the fundamental rule - and to adopt abbreviations such as “NNTR”: no need to reply.

While salutations may vary from paper to screen (one friend signs emails with “love and bacon”), it is clear that the inherent spirit of the email should remain much the same as its predecessor, the letter. To be sure, the need for etiquette and courtesy in communication will only increase as we become more and more digitized.

But maybe once in a while, you should switch off, pick up a pen, lick a stamp, and send a letter.

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution/Flickr

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