Saturday, June 23, 2007

Emailing without tears: Best Practices for School Psychologists in the Use of Email

It is a testament to the power of the Internet that there have been several books recently released which deal with the issue of “email etiquette”. There was once a time when email was a novelty, but now, it is currently a part of our common practice as school psychologists. And since email is an important feature of our practice, we should try to develop some general guidelines to ensure that all people who read them understand the emails that we send.

People seem to consider email as a hybrid of many other forms of communication. To some people, emailing is similar to the act of writing.

However, most people can type faster than they can write, and they may compare emailing to the act of speaking, an activity that for many of us is effortless. This is unfortunately a wrong comparison – when a person speaks, he or she can correct herself if the listener misunderstands them, since it is a “real time” activity. In contrast, emailing is not in “real time”; in fact, the receiver may read an email in 5 minutes or 5 days.

This fundamental assumption of email is critical: the process of email is more similar to writing a letter than it is to speaking. In contrast, most people treat it more like speaking rather than writing a letter.

As such, there are certain steps you should take in order to ensure that your email is clear and easily understood by your receiver. Here are some other general guidelines:

  • Your email should be longer than a few words and way shorter than a novel. Too many people may write emails that read, “OK” or “Me too” vs. “Thank you for the invitation. Of course I will attend the meeting”. Also, emails are not the forums for novels. Always assume that the person you will write to will receive hundreds of emails in one day, so keep your message as short and sweet and to the point as possible.
  • Use punctuation. But use it sparingly and only when necessary. There is a spectrum of tendencies that this guideline refers to: Some people include an overabundance of punctuation (especially exclamations), while others seem to forget everything about punctuation once they sit in front of a computer.
  • Spell-check before you send it out. Spellchecking an email before it is sent out is not just a matter of common courtesy, but will help ensure that the receiver will understand your message.
  • Try to not use too much formatting. Many emails include lists of points, (e.g., agendas, talking points for meetings, etc.) A good rule of thumb is that if you need to include a list that targets more than four points, it may be better to include your list as a document attachment (i.e., an MS Word or WordPerfect document). Some modes of accessing email do not allow for an easy display of list formatting. For example, many people access email from their telephones; lists often come up with garbled characters.
  • Make sure you are aware of who you are responding to. All to often a sender sends an email to a group of people, and one receiver may inadvertedly respond to the entire group, when in fact that receiver may have wanted to respond to the original sender. This is also the case with listservs. Prior to getting trigger-happy with the send button, review which address or addresses you are sending the email to.
  • To Cc or not to Bcc. That is the question. There are three ways to receive an email. The sender may send it To you, Cc the message to you (Cc = “carbon copy”) or they may Bcc the message to you (Bcc = “blind carbon copy”).
Sounds simple, right? Well, no, not really. First, there are users who have no idea that the Cc exists. When you receive an email, every address that the message was sent To or Cc’ed to shows up in one column, so it is hard for the receiver to know who the message was intended for, who the sender thought it might be a good idea to provide FYI (For Your Information). In cases such as this the receivers have no clue as to who should take action so either they all do something or they all do nothing. Prior to the Cc’ing people, take a good look at the people on your list – do they truly need to know about this message? If not, then get rid of them. People already receive too many emails so try to be polite and limit their work.

Bcc is an even murkier problem. The addresses in the Bcc are like Cc except that the addresses in To and Cc do not know that the addresses in the Bcc are included in the conversation. The To and Cc' addresses are blind to the Bcc addresses. Consider the problems that Bcc can engender and try to not use it; some may even consider it unethical.

  • Put a signature on it. Never, ever, ever assume that the receiver knows who you are. Even if your email address is your name. At the very least, your signature for each and every email should include:
• Your name
• Your title (M.S., M.S.Ed., Ph.D., etc.)
• Your position (School Psychologist, Director, etc.)
• Your affiliation (university, district, agency, etc.)
Most email programs allow you to set a standard default signature.

  • Try to minimize your use of abbreviations. Abbreviations are rampant on the Internet. But not everyone knows what these abbreviations mean. Please be polite to your receiver and explain what your abbreviations mean when you are using them. Otherwise, you run the risk of confusing people.

Here is a list of some of the more commonly used abbreviations on the Internet.

BTW by the way
FYI for your information
IMHO in my humble opinion
LOL lots of laughs
ROTFL rolling on the floor laughing
TTYL talk to you later

  • Keep the formatting of your email as simple as possible. Some email programs such as America Online or Outlook allow you to customize the look of your emails by providing a background or additional characters in the email when it is sent out. In general, this is an inconvenience for many individuals, who may need to spend a good deal of time downloading extra files in order to read your email.
  • Respect the thread. We have all had the opportunity to exchange a flurry of emails with one particular colleague when planning some type of activity. A “thread” is a series of emails that share the same subject or topic name. Most email services will organize these emails into an easily cohesive group that can be accessed.
Should someone email you with the subject line, “Meeting on Monday” , when you answer, you should open that email and simply respond. Many people will create a brand new subject in order to respond. Not only is that time consuming to you the sender, but also there is a risk that the receiver will view this email as a totally different issue, and may not deal with the message effectively.

  • Anger Management. The use of caps indicates that someone is angry about something. Avoid them, unless you are really angry. “I can’t make the meeting,” means that the person cannot attend, while “I CAN’T MAKE THE MEETING,” means that the person cannot attend and s/he is angry at some slight to the schedule.
  • If it comes from your work email address, then it comes from work. Consider this situation. A professional is at home at 9 pm, and send an email to a parent who is having problems with her child. This professional recommends something to the parent. That recommendation is coming from the office, despite the fact that the sender may have been at home, late at night. Every email that you receive or send from your work address is considered work-related; as such, it can be placed in a student’s permanent record or subpoenaed in a court of law. Please consider that before you run to send out an email.

For more information, please consult the following -



Miller, S. (2001). E-Mail Etiquette: Do's, Don'ts and Disaster Tales from People Magazine's Internet Manners Expert. Warner Books.

Steele, J. (2006). Email: The Manual: Everything You Should Know About Email Etiquette, Policies and Legal Liability Before You Hit Send. Marion Street Press.


Angela Mouzakitis, BCBA said...

Thank you for this post. While it is geared toward school psychologists, as a behavior analyst that engages in a lot of email correspondence, I found it very helpful. Glad to see you updating your blog. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

A great page on email etiquette. Perhaps you might like to consider another use for BCC - that of keeping a list of recipients private. It can also prevent problems when people try to reply to a large list by mistakenly hitting rely-all.

Confused? You might like to try the 7 Deadly Sins of Email at