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The greatest pitfall of e-mail


E-mail is one of the oldest and most useful tools around. Although the curse of spam is rather irritating and annoying, the system in general works and works well. There is only one area where e-mail (along with all other types of written electronic communication really) falls flat: conveying emotion and body language.

Today, we discovered a learner using a teacher’s class computer. This is against the rules of the acceptable use policy the students signed when getting an account for the network. Thanks to the use of KixStart logon scripts, we are able to identify the exact time, computer and user name of any student who does so. As standard procedure, we mail the relevant member of staff and ask them just to watch out for students doing this. We use a pretty generic template for sending these mails out, with language that is quite neutral and non aggressive.

One of the staff members we mailed replied to our email in a very strange way, written mostly in small letters with occasional words in capitals. Read on its own, the entire email seems quite rude and unprofessional. However, if it was said by a person, it could also be a witty response, depending on body language. Without the ability to read someone’s body language, you don’t really know the tone of the content of their message. My colleague took offence to this email and replied back to said staff member, asking that he be more gentle in his emails in the future. I proofread the email, and at no point do I think we were rude or nasty.

This teacher later came to speak to my colleague, after which things got a bit heated for no reason I could determine. Although I was busy with another staff member at the time, I kept my ears open and at no point do I think my colleague got rude. Nonetheless, the staff member left in a huff.

A short while later, we got another email from said staff member. This time, the first half of the mail could be considered threatening, with him talking about punching us in the face because he has Greek heritage etc… Said person to person, this could normally be taken as a joke, but in email due to lack of body language, those words could be conceived of as a real threat.

My colleague and I were not amused by this at all, though I suggested we just let the matter drop. Although I don’t appreciate such e-mails, pressing the issue may just cause unnecessary anger and frustration. I think my colleague is going to take the situation up with the business manager tomorrow, so I guess I’ll have to see what happens.

One thing I learnt a long time ago when it comes to e-mail is that you have to watch almost every word you write. Sometimes, things can come out in a way you don’t expect at all, causing grief where none was intended. Because e-mail is a lifeless inanimate thing, extra care must be taken to not offend people. Next time you write something, take an extra moment or two to reflect on what you’ve said. Pretend the person you are writing to is in front of you, then think how they would react to something you say. It might just be that moment that averts unnecessary anger and issues.

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