For many in our hectic, no time to spare world, the advent of email was a massive advance when compared to the alternatives of letter writing and telephone conversations. The advantages offered are numerous, from speed of dispatch through to ease of use, from almost guaranteed and personal connection to financial savings. There is no longer a need to worry whether someone is in their office at the right moment, or that they haven’t another caller on the line, no need to wait while written correspondence is delivered, sorted, opened, read and finally replied to. The immediacy of email allows almost instant answers, whether it be from one office to the next or one continent to another.
Throughout the reign of letter writing, a certain unique form of etiquette was created which set standards for what one might expect, what was acceptable and what should be avoided. Has email adopted this same level or understanding of writing etiquette or, as some suggest, is email a communication art lacking all forms of etiquette? Does email even need to have its own etiquette?
It is almost impossible to imagine a business world, or even modern private lives, without email but, as with all forms of new technology, all advances which appear to make our lives easier, email has brought some changes to society which are less beneficial. For one, a degree of impatience and, as many will have noticed when opening one mail or another, a lack of common courtesy.
The immediacy of email, the ability to quickly type a message click on Send and know that the mail has been successfully sent, has led to a new form of impatience. Unlike letter writing, where the sender automatically expected several days to pass before an answer might be received, the speed with which email can be sent and received gives the impression that, since it has obviously been delivered, it must have been read and actioned. It is not unknown for people to telephone the recipient of the mails and ask whether the message has been received, a seemingly rude method of forcing early action and, from a cost and time factor, a waste of resources. A good point of etiquette would be to allow time for due consideration, for other matters which might be more pressing to be dealt with, to accept that not everyone is constantly online or even at their computer. Sadly something which seems to have been pushed out of the social understanding of many.
Letter writing was, and is, a formal means of communication. There are set rules: of layout; how to address different people in private and public positions; when to use Sincerely as opposed to Faithfully at the close of a letter; when a postscript (p.s.) is acceptable and when not. Even private letters, or letters between lovers, can be considered as formal in their content, in the manner in which they are written, how the writer begins and closes a letter. Unlike letter writing, however, email is more tuned to speed. The busy office worker is more likely to type in a quick note to a colleague and send it without a thought to forms of address or even necessarily neat and readable layout: complete sentences; paragraphs; spelling. Someone younger, sending a message to a school friend or similar, will undoubtedly follow the same loose set of rules: I know this person, therefore I have no need to greet them or worry about how my email looks. A member of management sending out a mail is more likely to frame it as a form of command than correspondence when writing to a junior or employee who, following the shown example of their betters, replies in the same art and form.
Etiquette, a setting of social standards, is not something designed to make our lives difficult, rather to ease and help individuals in specific circumstances which may, according to their experience, be new to them or simply unknown territory. For the more experienced, etiquette brings a certain regulated conformity with it, a means of showing respect, of using the rules to quickly and effectively get a message across in a polite and socially acceptable manner. The etiquette standards applicable to email should, in theory, be the same as those for letter writing; set down and honed through countless years and worldwide usage. Sadly, the educational systems of many Western nations no longer consider the art of letter writing to be a necessity; it has been removed from the school curriculum and replaced with computer studies, amongst others. The correct manner in which one person should address another with their correspondence is no longer taught, it is merely assumed that everyone will gain their own experiences and apply the rules as they see fit. Etiquette, as a result, has suffered massively with the passage of time and unless a change in personal and educational standards, a new workplace ethic, a certain degree of personal pride pushes common courtesy back to the fore, it will continue to worsen. Etiquette in email is not quite dead but, at the same time, lacking in the health and vitality needed to keep it alive.