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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Email and You

With all of the wonderful adventures one can have while browsing on the internet, it's important for all of us to have that one piece of communication that exists which allows us all to connect to each other in a rather personal way.  We're going to discuss the topic of email, its rules, etiquette, and some general practices that can keep you and your computer safe.  Some of the following may seem like common-sense items, but overall they are worth repeating.  However, you are ultimately responsible for the email that you open, read, and write (which eventually you'll send out).

Over and over, I hear it all of the time.  "Don't open this email, or your computer will explode!"  I can't help, but laugh my freaking ass off when I hear that.  Unless your computer is rigged like in the movie "Live Free or Die Hard", your computer WILL NOT explode from an email, or from a virus, or from any other source other than some C4 with a remote detonator.  Okay, so I exaggerated that, but the point is the same.  I get emails all of the time from family members claiming there is an email that is going around that, if opened, will download a virus that copies everything on your hard drive and sends the contents to the FBI, then erases your drive to the point of being useless.  Again, exaggeration!  While some of it may be funny, it is always prudent to be careful. 

Though, a chief complaint among techs is the ever popular (and at times, annoying) practice of chain-letteremail messages.  I'm sure most of us have been victim of, or at some point the originator of, such emails.  These annoying pieces of email can clog an inbox quicker than a FOX News Commentator's voicemail.  The following are just some guidelines, tips, and general etiquette rules for email.  Whether you follow them or not is up to you, but I assure you that your friends and family will thank you for following such practices.

Etiquette Guidelines:

1) Keep it "G" rated (or at most PG-13) - My general rule of thumb is that if it can't be broadcast on TV in some form or another (cable TV, over-the-air stations, etc), it shouldn't be sent in an email, especially to people that might easily be offended.  Likewise, if you are sending an email to a friend or family members' work email account, it's probably best not to include explicit material.  I've known friends who have been terminated not because of what they did, but rather what their friends or family members sent to them in email.  Again, if grandma shouldn't see it, it's not a good idea to forward.

2) Pictures in Email - This is kind of tied in with number one.  Obviously, it's never a good idea to send mature material to people who might otherwise find it objectionable.  In other words, that hot and steamy weekend with that hot date at the lodge over the weekend shouldn't be viewed by your co-workers at the office.  Remember, if grandma isn't going to like it, it's always good to assume no one else will, either!

3) Keep it Short and Simple - I think I speak for every tech out there when I say we don't particularly like getting emails that require our long-term attention.  Email is meant as an excellent substitute for snail mail, but not always.  Remember that email is almost instantaneous, and with that said, you can email your contacts with as much or as little as you want.  There is no need to fit your entire life-story into an email.  Writing an email is like having a short, but casual conversation in person, only you have a rather short delay. 

4) Grammatically Proper - One of the main things I hear about all of the time is that people get upset over an email, and 95% of the time is because their friend or relative has used a term that has been misinterpreted, and often because of either poor grammar or vocabulary.  This is especially true when doing job searches.  Always, and I mean ALWAYS, use proper grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary, even in email.  Yes, it is meant as a means of long-distance communication, but it's not like email has a word limit.  It's not like the old AOL days where you had to type everything in code.  It's easy to interpret something the wrong way with a given word, phrase, or how it's been punctuated.  Take time in writing that paragraph for your resume, or that email to a long-time friend.  I know your emails aren't being graded, but a lot of how you punctuate, use proper grammar, and good vocabulary can be a window into your life.  Unless your friends and family know how to read your "code", it's probably best to write in the same manner as you did in high school or college for a report on whatever subject you were assigned.

5) Reply to ? - We've all heard the jokes, and we've all heard the stories I'm sure.  When sending an email, make sure you are sending it to the appropriate addresses, and make sure you are not clicking on the "Reply to All" button when it's not intended.  One of the more popular stories I've heard involved a guy who was getting married, and had gotten an email from an old ex-girlfriend, who had sent it to him and all of his buddies.  What the email said I don't know, but what I do remember hearing is that the guy had clicked REPLY ALL, and typed something really raunchy, then sent it off thinking it was only going to be seen by his ex-girlfriend.  Well, it wasn't just sent to her, it was sent to several of his buddies, one of whom was his bride-to-be's brother, and was also his boss.  Needless to say, the wedding was called off, he was fired, and he never heard from his ex-girlfriend again.  The moral of the story should be obvious.

Now on to the general tips and guidelines.  Again, some of these should be obvious!

1) Email Warnings - I'm sure a good number of us all have received one of these at lease once per day or week.  Usually the emails come from family members (or friends) asking everyone to "watch out" for an elusive and deceptive email with some creepy subject line and accompanying message body.  Sometimes these can be helpful alerts, but often I find them to be useless since a lot of it is just common sense practice that should be utilized often.  For example, one of the more recent emails that I got was entitled "Fw: PLEASE READ THIS!!! Urgent e-mail!", and it talked about an email that contained a video (or video link) featuring Osama Bin Laden being hanged, and that upon opening this email or video link that it would download a potentially hazardous computer virus onto your computer, and destroys all data on your primary hard disk.  I filed it away, because it was from family, and I did read some of it, but to be honest, I ignored it for two reasons.  First, I know by common sense and logic that Osama Bin Laden has not been captured (that we know of), and two, when I checked out (did my research) on this particular email, I found out that it had been years ago that this email had gone around.  Most major anti-virus software makers have probably found a fix to prevent this type of attack, and if they hadn't after five years, something would definitely be very wrong.  So, moral of the story is: "USE YOUR BRAIN!"

2) Propaganda and other Topics - Once again, we are visiting the infamous work-safe email topic.  This is yet another reason why I've never given out my work email address to anyone outside of work.  I've known friends who have received emails from family members (and other friends) referencing religious and political themed ideas at their work email address.  Some of it was harmless, but in the eyes of the employer, that material is an offense that almost certainly warrants termination.  Some employers tolerate to a degree, but most won't.  We (us techs) have a term for such emails.  They're called "NWS" or "Not Work Safe".  This includes any email that talks about religious ideas, political garbage, and other more serious topics such as racism in any form, sexuality (including pornography), as well as emails that refer to a family members' sexual orientation in a way that is demeaning and hurtful.  My personal recommendation is to just not post such topics in an email without adding to the subject line "NWS" that way we'll know you're sending material not suitable for viewing at work.  Even better yet is to not send it to your family member or buddy's work email address in the first place.  On the flip side of that, folks, a work environment is NOT the place to view your personal email accounts.  I've personally had the unfortunality of watching a friend at work being escorted out, because that person decided to view something on his personal email account that wasn't "G" rated.  Employers can be very strict when it comes to that kind of thing. 

3) Keep It Separated - I know I'll probably sound a little redundant here, but it's worth reiterating.  When using email, it is ALWAYS best to keep your professional and personal lives SEPARATED.  When I think of the phrase "What goes on in Vegas, STAYS in Vegas!" is not necessarily true if the person in question is careless.  Most of us I'm sure want to have some sense of privacy, and employers aren't necessarily firing people for what they do at home, it's when their home (personal) life interferes with their job.  An employer could care less what you do in your own home, but if it's communicated to the wrong person, say a co-worker who has "morality" issues, that person may decide to report you to your boss, even if you've done nothing wrong or illegal.  These are the kinds of people who play the politics game, and it can get ugly FAST!  Not to mention that there could be a possible termination, and possible legal trouble as well.  Do everyone (including yourself and your loved ones) a favor, and keep your personal lives out of work, and your work lives out of your personal life. 

4) Not A Laughing Matter - This is one of those areas about email that can be tricky.  A lot of what I receive from family members and friends tend to be harmless fun with jokes, funny stories, quirky messages, etc.  However, there's a lot that can be sent that not everyone finds particularly enjoyable.  For instance, I receive a lot of emails that contain stories that, at the end, have a funny, but sexual tone to it.  While I might find this material enjoyable, someone else may not.  Also, just a side note, it's worth mentioning that if you are a parent, it's best not to let your children under 14 view any of your email messages, unless it's an email from Grandma or Grandpa specifically addressed to them.   Again, thinking back to the idea "if Grandma shouldn't see it".

Caution Recommended
Many of us at some point or another get emails that talk about our children, grandchildren, or other relatives, and while it may seem harmless and innocent in nature, it can be viewed as exploitation.  Obviously, there shouldn't be a video email from a relative that shows that person offering marijuana to their 5-yr old son, and in fact, that shouldn't be happening in the first place, period.  However, as we all know, some government agencies like to aggressively seek incidents that are questionable at best.  There was a story on the news not long ago about a couple who was charged with child neglect and exploitation after they had inadvertently sent an email to some random individual that contained a picture of their 6-yr old daughter in a rather strange, but cute position (fully clothed, mind you).  I don't remember the details of the story, but ultimately charges were dropped, because of the questionable practices of Child Services in that county/state.  The moral here is that while your photos of your kid acting funny and childish may seem innocent to you, others might not.  So it's very important to always check, double check, and then check again the email addresses you are sending to.

Some Final Thoughts
There may be some of this that you may perceive as patronage, and that is up to you to think that.  However, I am strongly advocating the use of common sense and logic when using email.  It's far better to be prudent about using your email account than to be careless and get in trouble for it.  Be wise and careful when sending email, and be mindful of the people who send (or receive) messages.  While I agree that we all shouldn't have to censor ourselves with email, it's become almost a necessity when there are very sensitive individuals who get offended easily, even by a polite "Hello" email message.  The best practice by far that I've found effective is to screen everyone's emails, and even screen my own, or better yet, not send them at all.

Have a comment? Suggestion? A topic you'd like to have discussed on my blog? Email me at And if I don't know the answer, I'll post up information on who to ask, where to go, or what to do to get your answer. :) Until then, have a great day, and I hope you've enjoyed reading my computer tips so far!