Friday, July 28, 2006

Email: Beware. . . or at least be careful

"Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing," says Rosalind in As You Like It. How true Shakespeare's words still ring! Although information professionals are relied upon to find and retrieve timely and accurate information, they are ironically at risk of running into occupational hazards, personally and professionally.

Why do you ask? Besides addiction (which deserves a future blog posting upon itself), email messages can easily be misinterpreted and written out of context. Tom Van Vleck's "The Risks of Electronic Communication" offers an excellent "how to" guide on how to properly use email. I've summarized his salient points.

(1) Jokes. What appears lightheartedly humourous may offend others. People are more offended by offensive jokes through emails than through in-person commentaries.

(2) Anger. Emotions run high online. Without reading them carefully, emotional messages can trigger strong emotions from the recipient, often taken out of context (by both sides). Hence, the solution? Pick up the phone!

(3) Sarcasm and Irony. Some people read hastily; others just take words literally and don't understand that you really meant the opposite of what you wrote. As Van Vleck warns, even a smiley or "just kidding" won't always work.

(4) Criticism. Don't do it online, even if temptations run high. Even criticism of trivial matters can be construed out of context. People are touchy; if they feel attacked, they attack back.

(5) Late Night. I like this one the most: messages composed late at night can cause serious damage. As Van Vleck points out, some mysterious influence of the brain gets triggered after a certain hour, 9PM or so, which makes us think we're typing in sensible messages, when in fact they are subject to severe misunderstanding. Hence, the best solution is to save it in a file and look at it tomorrow morning. (Guilty as charged!)

(6) Personal Remarks. Making derogatory remarks about others is a bad idea. Doing it behind their back is worse. Doing it in public is deadly. Electronic messages are the last place for any kind of uncomplimentary remark. Sometimes, that FWD can turn into a REPLY, and hence, the nasty email remark gets sent to the very person you don't want reading it. (Guilty again!)

Hence, for the information professional, "handling" information/records is every bit as essential as searching, organizing, and disseminating. Perhaps it's time that proper usage of email be included somewhere in the LIS core? Have we taken email for granted, perhaps blinded by its supposed simplicity when in fact its more complicated than we realize? Amazingly, Van Vleck's article, written 11 years ago, is still as relevant as it is today as it was then, if not more so. If I had only read it when it first came out, I would be so much better off!

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