E-mail traffic: the good, bad, ugly

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mike Cote
  • 39th Communication Squadron commander
I wanted to take this opportunity to provide some tips I have found helpful over the years regarding e-mail and to discuss a few key rules regarding its use. 

One of the first "good" things to remember is that e-mail is not like real-time conversation. Take advantage of the opportunity to gather your thoughts, do necessary research and deliver a better response. Additionally, e-mail provides written documentation of positions, decisions or directions which are often more difficult to communicate consistently via conversation or to remember later. Given this, we should always pause before sending a message to double check content, spelling and grammar and ensure we didn't forget any attachments. 

E-mails provide the benefit of passing information quickly to small and large groups of people much more efficiently than in person or via phone calls. The receiver of the e-mail does not have to be at their desk or a specific meeting, and can read the e-mail when time is available. 

For those who have access to a computer most of the day, e-mail can dominate your time and cause unnecessary distractions. E-mail alerts and notifications can be "bad" if they allow unimportant items to take you away from more important ones which require focus and concentration. Make sure you manage the e-mail rather than letting it manage you. 

We should know which things are not well-suited for e-mail. Don't criticize or try to provide critical feedback. Generally speaking, emotional items and e-mail don't mix well, especially when you consider the lack of non-verbal communication, tone or inflection and potential misinterpretation of e-mail text. For all these reasons, it is best to use face-to-face meetings in these cases. Also, don't write an e-mail when upset; let it sit for 24 hours and you will probably re-write it and be glad you didn't send it earlier. 

Finally, don't send last minute, same day changes and assume the reader will see the e-mail in time. Pick up the phone and let them know. 

Once you are sure an e-mail is appropriate, it is always worth the extra time to make it "reader friendly." Use the subject line to communicate the content effectively. If the message is about an event, put the title of the event, location, date and time in the subject block. If the message changes focus, change the subject line. This can be very helpful later when searching for messages on a given topic. Also, put the bottom line up-front in your message to summarize the result you are looking for and then follow with details. Next, ensure the right people are addressed. E-mail makes it possible to send messages to anyone from a co-worker to the wing commander. Just because you can however, doesn't mean you should. Consider carefully who should receive your e-mail messages and replies. Use group addresses sparingly and only for messages directly related to the entire group. 

Lastly, the "ugly" primarily involves inappropriate use of e-mail. Failure to observe the provisions of Air Force Instruction 33-119 Air Force Messaging "constitutes a violation of Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice" and there are similar administrative and legal consequences for civilians. Some examples of prohibited uses are: sending or receiving electronic messages for commercial or personal financial gain; sending harassing or offensive material to others; and propagation of chain letters, junk e-mails, and broadcasting inappropriate messages to groups or individuals. 

Remember, e-mail is a great tool if users know when and how to use it most effectively.