CORVALLIS, Ore. - In recent years a whole new form of communication - electronic mail - has captivated people around the world, but experts say it's often abused, misused or misunderstood.
This new medium which was almost nonexistent 10 years ago now pervades the home and office. It's not your grandma's "snail mail," however, and the rules for intelligently using e-mail bear about as much resemblance to old-fashioned mail as the telephon e did to the Pony Express.
Which is to say, many people don't have a clue.
"We're all just learning in this area, and frankly we're discovering what works as we go along," said Vicki Collins, an assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Intensive Curriculum at Oregon State University. "This is a brand new way of communicating."
In her work to help students write and communicate more effectively, Collins has monitored most of the research being done on e-mail and has some general guidelines to pass along. And her corollary to the real estate axiom of "location, location, and location" is to "remember your audience, remember your audience."
"The biggest single mistake most people make when using e-mail is not to consider who may be reading the mail and what is appropriate for that person," Collins said. "Often the communication is seen as inherently informal, since people frequently e-mail casual notes to friends. But communicating with professional colleagues, professors or prospective employers requires more clarity and care."
Further complicating the situation, she said, is the fact that the convenience of editing, saving and forwarding e-mail opens a whole new can of worms that never really existed before - frankly, you don't know WHO might be getting the message you send, or in what altered form.
"In the old days, it was rare for someone to take a written letter, photocopy it, then address and mail the correspondence to some third party," Collins said. "That's no longer the case. With the convenience of electronic forwarding, your message may now be sent to one or dozens of people who you never intended to see it. Keep that in mind."
Other key tips:
"With all this advice, it's also important to remember that e-mail can have some enormously positive and liberating advantages as a form of communication," Collins said.
For instance, some introverted people may find it far easier to communicate electronically, as the computer medium helps them break through natural reserve. It can also help transcend cultural barriers felt by some people, who otherwise would feel cons trained from speaking in public.
The convenience and inherent informality of e-mail, Collins said, also can help cut through bureaucratic layers. Many people feel more comfortable than ever using it to communicate directly to the top - so go ahead and tell the boss what you think, b ut keep it brief, clear and professional.
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Vicki Collins, 541-737-3711