It's a tool of immeasurable importance in today's working world, yet we're wildly cavalier with it, firing off mistake-riddled missives as recklessly as a wound-up 5-year-old with a dart gun.
Or a colleague shoots you an e-mail that says: "Hey, you got that thing done, bro." And you're not really sure what thing he's referring to or when he got approval to call you "bro."
Or the angry e-mail. The one you shouldn't have sent. The one where you told your manager to kiss your Well, you know the one.
According to my extensive Internet research, e-mail has been around since the early 1970s, the invention of Douglas E, a nerd who wanted to find an easier way to share inappropriate office humor with co-workers.
As e-mail became more broadly accessible, companies started using it without laying out the rules of the game. So we have what we have today -- some craft e-mails with the care they'd put into a handwritten letter, some garble together e-mails so unclear you suspect the writer's fingers were glued together.
In an attempt to help, I contacted Dona Young, author of a pragmatic and conveniently short new book called "Angry E-Mail: How to Put a Lid on It."
She believes e-mail has managed to cloak the human element of work communication. We tend to simply blurt things out via e-mail, incoherent or at times even mean comments we'd rarely feel comfortable saying to someone face to face.
"A lot of the people we write to we never even meet, so you need to remember the human factor," Young said. "You want to create a personal link."
And personal links are rarely forged with emoticons and UNNECESSARY STATEMENTS WRITTEN IN CAPS WITH EXTRA PUNCTUATION!!!!
Young's sensible approach to business e-mail begins with making sure you detail the purpose of your note right off the bat. Don't jam things up with extended salutations or small talk -- people don't have time for that.
"After composing an e-mail, spend a few minutes editing it, so you make the purpose very clear to the reader at a glance, then cut all the unnecessary information," she said. "We're living in a world that's moving at warp speed. One of the things that irritates people is getting an e-mail and then having to work really hard to figure out how to respond."
Speaking of responding, many of us who live with a BlackBerry strapped to our foreheads get annoyed when someone doesn't immediately reply to one of our VERY IMPORTANT e-mails.
Young said we need to calm down. She suggests you give a person two days to respond, unless your request is tied to a more immediate deadline.
"We have to give each other a little leeway," Young said. "People get hundreds of e-mails a day to sort through. And we weren't trained with a certain protocol. So we need to set some expectations that are manageable."
Other sage advice from her book includes:
Don't use sarcasm in e-mail. That's one of the leading catalysts of angry responses, because you have no way of knowing whether the recipient will know you're joking -- and emoticons aren't foolproof. "You really don't know what someone's day is like or what's going on in their personal lives. Someone can open an e-mail and -- boom -- they take it totally the wrong way."
Steer clear of "trigger words," terms that often elicit negative reactions. The word "policy" can irk some people and can be written around by just saying what the policy is. Other bad words include: unsatisfactory, unacceptable, not, never, never again and unfair. (I would add jerk face, turkey butt and worst-person-ever.)
When in doubt, do not send a message out. This is a great way to avoid sending angry notes you might regret. Even a five-minute pause can give you enough time to realize you're about to make a mistake. Even if the e-mail's not angry, Young notes that a delay before sending provides extra moments in which you might think of a better answer or perhaps a better way to say something sensitive. She said people can set their e-mail accounts up so the note is held in the outbox for a selected amount of time after hitting send.
Young even goes so far as to suggest there are times when you should forget e-mail and pick up a phone or walk across the office and talk to someone. (For the record, I staunchly oppose any form of getting up or walking.)
"Sometimes we try to use e-mail as a mode of communication when the subject is too complicated," she said. "The person writing it spends too much time writing it, and the person receiving it spends too much time trying to understand it. You're better off just talking about it."
We all have made e-mail mistakes. I, for example, am missing whatever chromosome it is that prevents people from hitting reply-all and making a wisecrack -- years of therapy and it remains a problem.
But the hope here is that by giving just a small amount of thought to this still-new form of communication, we might make the overall work experience a bit less frustrating. So make sure you e-mail a copy of this column to everyone at your company under the subject line: INCREDIBLY IMPOTRANT EMAILS TIPs -- PLS REED NOW!!!! :)
That should get the ball rolling.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions -- anonymously or by name -- and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.