This Tip was first run in October 2006. This "encore tip" is a reminder to be professional in email.

Halloween is a time for scary stories – tales of vampires and ghouls rising from the dead to terrify innocents – a time when things that you thought were dead and buried come back to haunt you.

Unfortunately, the analogy between badly written email and the undead is sometimes all too appropriate. A hasty word can return to haunt you long after you hit the send button and thought the conversation was over. Careers have been destroyed, money lost and relationships ruined when an email returned from beyond.

Americans have a bad habit of treating email very casually – as an extension of our last phone conversation or a continuation of the chat in the hallway. We assume that the message is private and that recipient will understand the context and correctly interpret our tone.

In fact, email is more like a postcard – anyone can read it while it’s in transit and any of the recipients can save it, forward it or post it to the internet. Electronic copies can remain in archives and electronic message hubs all over the Internet – places that neither the sender nor the recipient can control. Emails can be subpoenaed and forced into the public record. You have no right of privacy in your email, either sent or received. When you write an email, you must assume that it will be read by an unknown and unforeseen audience.

That unknown audience will assume that you carefully crafted and wordsmithed your message (or, if not, that the hurried email is evidence of the writer’s “real state of mind”). They will not believe that you were “just joking” and won’t care that you were trying to dash off a quick note. They will interpret the tone according to their own preconceptions.

Always assume that anything you write will come out at the worst possible time and in the worst possible light. Be professional in your email. Include enough context that the unforeseen reader understands the message. Be personable yet professional in tone. (In particular, never use sarcasm in email.) Never write anything that you would be embarrassed to see on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper.

Remember, email can come back to haunt you.

Leave a Reply