An Etiquette for Computer-Based Communication



David Gurteen

First Published

June 1995


e-Collaboration; Information Technology; Personal Knowledge Management; Trust


United Kingdom

Several years ago I was the International Development Manager for a large Software Development company based in the US. Much of the communication was via electronic mail. During my time with the company I learnt how effective electronic communication could be. I also discovered its powers of destruction:

A European marketing manager e-mailed a request to a US development manager whom he barely knew. He demanded that the manager include extra functionality in a new product to meet the needs of the European market. He also criticised him for not taking European requirements seriously.

The effective of the e-mail was devastating; the US development team were under tremendous pressure to ship the product, the European requirements having been agreed months previously.

The US manager was incensed. He forwarded the e-mail to the whole of his development team with the comment: "Just look what the ignorant a**-h***s are demanding now!"

He sent a politer version to his management team and to myself but a 'mole' in his team forwarded me the original version!

Wishing to try to undo the obvious damage done by this e-mail, I visited the manager to try to 'rebuild bridges'. He was purple with rage; his immediate response was "What ever you want, you're not getting it!" From that time on co-operation from the manager amounted to 'nil'. There were several things he could easily have done for us. He did none of them.

Up until he left the company two years later, I could sense the tension whenever I met with him (I wasn't the guy who had upset him). He never did more than the barest minimum for the International part of the business, nor did the other members of his team.

The European marketing manager not only did not get what he had requested but he destroyed the relationship between this development manager and to a great extent his team and the whole of the International organisation.

The Pitfalls of Computer-Based Communication

Computer-Based communication is immensely powerful. It improves communication and enables functions of an organisation to work effectively together. It also has the power to destroy or seriously damage relationships. If you exchange few e-mail messages with colleagues each day, you may not have experienced problems. However when you:
    * are under pressure

    * receive more messages than you have time to deal with
      - flooding you with unstructured information

      - imposing demands on you

    * communicate with people
      - in different functional groups

      - whom you have never met

      - whose native language is different from your own

      - from different cultural backgrounds

      - under pressures and constraints of which you are not aware
then electronic communication may not only be less effective as a medium for communication but may actually become destructive.

According to the Oxford dictionary etiquette is the conventional rules of personal behaviour in polite society. It is about being well mannered, courteous and showing respect for each other. The problem with computer-based communication is that it is a new medium with few conventional rules. We are only just beginning to learn how to use it effectively. We need a broadly understood 'Computer-Based Communication Etiquette'.

Trust and Computer-Based Communication

One principle I believe should drive a communication etiquette is Trust. According to Stephen Covey, chairman of the Covey Leadership Center:

"Trust is the highest form of human motivation. It is the lifeblood of an organisation"

When trust is high - communication is easy, instant and effective.

When trust is low - tension is high, there is much politicking and 'ass covering' - it is like walking in a mine field. Communication is difficult if not impossible.

When people have a high degree of trust in each other they work together extremely effectively.

In his book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", Stephen gives us an interesting way of looking at Trust through the metaphor of the "Emotional Bank Account" (EBA).

The Emotional Bank Account works like this ...

I make deposits through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments. Conversely you can make deposits in my EBA.

On the other hand I make withdrawals through disrespect, ignoring you, not listening to you, threatening you and cutting you off in conversations. Likewise you can make withdrawals from my EBA with you.

When an account balance is high, trust is high; when it is low, trust is low.

Unlike a normal bank account, however, you do not earn interest, what's more the balance erodes with time. This means that you must continually top up the account. It also means that if the balance is high you can afford to make small withdrawals now and then, as long as you remember to make frequent deposits and keep the balance topped up.

So what role does all of this play in computer-based communication?

My belief is that computer-based communication can destroy trust in organisations without the parties concerned being aware that it is happening. It has the ability not only to destroy trust between people but also between whole groups (as illustrated in my opening story).

So called "Flaming" or major incidents play a part in destroying trust and do so publicly. It is the small everyday withdrawals from people's emotional bank accounts however that cause the real erosion of trust. Small withdrawals include: flaming, making unreasonable demands of people, imposing work on people, ignoring requests, badmouthing and failure to meet commitments. These things go on in normal every day interaction between people, so what's different about computer-based communication?

There is no micro-feedback loop. I can go on criticising you for several pages whereas, if we were talking, you would stop me during the first sentence. I can also say things that I would never have the nerve to say to your face.

E-mail is like a 'loaded gun'. Having quickly sent a message in a moment of anger, on most e-mail systems you cannot retrieve it.

In electronic communities you establish many more relationships where you do not know the people with whom you are communicating - you may never have even met them. Thus you have not built a high trust level with them and it is easy to misinterpret intentions.

There is lack of context. You do not know what pressures the other person is under and so may press too hard at times for action or a reply and be surprised at a fiery response.

E-mail is more public. You should always assume that an e-mail that bad mouths or criticises someone could end up being forwarded to them or overseen.

A Computer-Based Communication Etiquette

There is no single set of rules that constitutes good etiquette. Communication is personal and relies so much on context. If you know someone well and if you have high trust in each other then you can say things to each other electronically that maybe you couldn't say to someone you barely know.

As individuals we simply need to be conscious of the subliminal harm we may do unwittingly via electronic communication and modify our behaviour accordingly.

I do believe however that there is a single principle - that is one of Trust. Electronic communication should be used to build trust - not to destroy it.

Endeavour not to destroy Trust:

  • do not criticise or blame
  • do not be manipulative
  • do not be arrogant
  • do not discuss emotional issues
  • do not reply in the heat of the moment
  • do not ignore messages to which a reply is needed
  • do not breach confidentiality
  • do not overload the system with unnecessary messages
Simply stop and think before sending a message. Be aware and remain conscious.

But there is more. There is the need to build trust - to make deposits in people's emotional bank accounts. This is the important bit that so frequently is overlooked. Building blocks include:
  • responding in a timely manner
  • thanking publicly
  • informing people
  • apologising publicly
  • demonstrating personal integrity
  • replying promptly even to say no
  • praising people
  • supporting people
  • giving positive feedback
  • keeping promises
  • being honest, kind and courteous
Being proactive in this manner is more difficult. Try to pause once or twice each day when using e-mail and ask yourself the questions:

"What deposits can I make in people's emotional bank accounts today?"

"How can I build and improve relationships within the electronic community in which I operate?"

E-Mail Overload

Special attention must be given to E-Mail Overload. This problem is often most acute in large global organisations where e-mail has been widely deployed for several years and where there is a high volume of mail messages. If you are not faced with the problem of e-mail overload today, you may be faced with it tomorrow. This is one of the most serious problems facing wide adoption, acceptance and effectiveness of electronic mail and the building of an information sharing culture.

E-Mail overload is one of the greatest destroyers of trust and hence effective communication in an organisation. If you do not have time to read all your e-mail because of the shear volume then, amongst other problems, you may miss deadlines, meetings and requests for action - all Trust destroyers; not to mention the time wasted ploughing through your messages.

Here is another story that clearly demonstrates the problem:

There once was a product manager who was so busy that she rarely read her e-mail. She missed meetings because of this and overlooked key pieces of information which were instrumental to the quality of her work. Those who knew her never bothered to communicate with her by e-mail but walked around to her office and interrupted her (she rarely answered her 'phone either). This was all counterproductive - the more she did not read her e-mail, the more time she lost in missed meetings, interruptions and rework.

She sat down one evening to clear the backlog. As she went through her e-mail, item by item, taking the oldest first she started to reply to messages that had been superseded by later ones! I received replies about issues that were long since dead.

The next day I walked to her office to offer some advice. I quickly noted that she had over six hundred unread messages and over one thousand read messages stored in folders. I pointed out that, if on average if she spent five minutes handling each unread message, it would take her fifty hours to clear the backlog. Not to mention the fact that she would be inundated with replies to all the messages she was sending out.

She couldn't bring herself however to delete the backlog and after a couple of hours gave up with still over 500 unread messages.

So what is the moral to the story? The approaches that appear to be most effective, reduce the volume of messages and make it easier to handle the ever increasing volume of messages are:-

In a recent article in Computer Weekly it was reported that Computer Associates (CA) was leading a corporate rebellion against the use of electronic mail. CA were reported to be unhappy with the amount of time employees spent accessing and writing e-mail messages. In order to reduce this the system was disabled four to five hours a day.

Having invested a great deal of money in deploying an e-mail system, switching it off is not a solution. Would you do the same with the 'phone system if you felt people were unduly interrupted or abusing the system through personal chit-chat?

Many companies ban the use of e-mail for anything other than company business. This is certainly an option but it penalises geographically dispersed groups of people that use electronic messaging to build closer bonds and thereby adding deposits to people's emotional bank accounts.

Pricing Policies
You can charge users by the message or kilobyte of mail that they send. This charge could be money or you could restrict users to so many 'message units' per month.

This approach penalises those who have fewer resources to pay for communication and those who make effective use of computer-based communication.

Filters are often cited as the panacea to e-mail overload.

I was working as a consultant to a large global organisation employing several thousand people They were all on e-mail and there was a gateway to the Internet so anyone in the world could mail them individually.

A small group in the IT department stood round a PC laughing. I walked over to find out what was going on. Poor Jane, she had been on maternity leave for 3 months and was about to come back to 3,500 e-mail messages! They found this so amusing. I commented that it wasn't that funny - it was a serious problem!

"Oh that's nothing!" came the response! "Our IT manager receives over 100 messages a day and one of our technical experts in the US receives over 200 messages per day at peak times". "But surely such volumes destroy the effectiveness of e-mail" I said - "people cannot cope with that volume." "No! Its not a problem." was the reply - "they use filters - so that they can program what messages they see and which they don't."

You can use an e-mail system with rules and filters to direct incoming messages into different folders. This is fine for prioritising your reading but it clearly is not a solution for reducing the volume or ensuring you read everything which is important. What is the point of an expensive e-mail system routing maybe millions of messages around the globe each year if, say, only 20% of them are ever read!

In the book "Connections" by Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler they tell the story of Tandem who designate all mail messages when they are sent to one of three classes:

First Class: This class is reserved for one-to-one messages between people and small groups of people.

Second Class: This class is used for Company Broadcasts.

Third Class: This class is reserved for extra-curricula messages. These messages are delivered after 5:30 to reduce interrupts during the day.

I would suggest a more effective set of classes:

Important and Urgent
- must read or reply needed urgently

Important and Not Urgent
- must read or reply but not urgent

For Information Only
- can safety delete without reading if overloaded

External Messages
- probably from supplier or customer



Methods such as this offer a good partial solution. They put the onus on the sender to categorise the message thus ensuring a more effective filtering process. In addition, on receipt people may still use their own filters

Bulletin Boards and Discussion Forums
The wider use of Bulletin Boards to disseminate information and Discussion Forums for focused group discussions is a major part of the solution. They can significantly reduce e-mail volumes.

Automatic Deletion of 'Expired' Mail
A method that I have not come across is the concept of 'automatic deletion of expired mail'. The idea is that the sender of a message stamps it with a date that indicates when the message has 'expired' and can thus be deleted. All expired messages are automatically deleted each day by the system.

Such a feature would be ideal for automatically purging a large amount of junk from a mail system. For example, a short note that says a meeting has been put back to the following day, could be automatically deleted the day after the meeting.

This is not a solution to reducing volume but more of a solution to handling the volume. Having been away on a business trip or holiday, many messages would be auto-deleted thus greatly reducing the tedium of ploughing through all those old messages on your return.

All of these solutions apart from possibly the first two, play an important role in controlling the ever increasing volume of messages within a large global electronically mature organisation. The best solution, however, is still to come:

Think Twice!
Don't send the damned stuff in the first place!

Think Twice before sending a message.
- Would I do better not to send it? Should I use the phone or walk around and talk to the person face to face?

Think Twice before sending to a distribution list.
- Do all these people really need to see this message?

Think Twice before forwarding a message.
- Does the recipient really need to see this?

Think Twice before copying a message.
- Do they really need to see it? Am I ass-covering or politicking?

Think Twice before replying to every recipient of the message.
- Maybe just the author will do?

If you send someone an unnecessary message you make a small withdrawal from their emotional bank account. If you are at home and a huge binary file attachment of several megabytes takes an hour to download and it's not needed, then you take one 'bloody huge' withdrawal from that person's emotional bank account with you!


I've talked about some of the problems of e-mail and how it can destroy trust within an organisation. I've outlined an etiquette of do's and don'ts and described how to use e-mail to proactively build trust.

In particular I hope I have brought attention to the problems of e-mail overload and made the point that, although there are technical solutions that may help, the real responsibility lies with each individual. In fact it all comes back to individual responsibility if e-mail and other forms of computer-based communication are going to become an effective means of business communication.

Its also worth noting what I have not touched on i.e. issues of writing clearly to be understood, the problems of overload information, bulletin boards and discussion forums. These items and more all need to be addressed in creating an effective information sharing culture.

As more and more companies provide everyone within their organisations with electronic mail, as organisations are increasingly interconnected with X.400 backbones, as the public are given access to internal e-mail systems through Internet gateways and as the fax is displaced by e-mail, then it will become more and more important that we establish a common communication etiquette and learn to deal with the volume of messages we receive every day.

If you would like to learn more about Trust and the Emotional Bank Account you may like to buy Stephen Covey's book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" published by Simon & Schuster.

An excellent book on "New Ways of Working in the Networked Organisation" called Connections by Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler is published by the MIT Press.

Video: Social Networking in Plain English

A short explanation of social networking websites and why they are popular.

Media Information: Image

If you are interested in Knowledge Management, the Knowledge Café or the role of conversation in organizational life then you my be interested in this online book I am writing on Conversational Leadership
David Gurteen

Follow me on Twitter

How to contact me

My Blog

Gurteen Knowledge Community
The Gurteen Knowledge Community
The Gurteen Knowledge Community is a global learning community of over 21,000 people in 160 countries across the world.

The community is for people who are committed to making a difference: people who wish to share and learn from each other and who strive to see the world differently, think differently and act differently.

Membership of the Gurteen Knowledge Community is free.
Knowledge Community


request help
visitor book
Sunday 23 June 2024
07:47 PM GDT