The personal and the formal

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Inappropriate: Do not use textual emoticons or ones like these in formal communication.
Inappropriate: Do not use textual emoticons or ones like these in formal communication.

Get a grip on e-mail etiquette. Avoid sending wrong signals to those you choose to communicate with.

During the past two weeks, this column discussed the basic aspects of handling e-mail. Preparation of an e-mail message does not end with typing of plain text. There are ways to make it a powerful tool for effective communication. Let us now look into some of these.


You may use emoticons (smiley faces) which are created by keystrokes and used to communicate humour, sarcasm, sadness and so on, in an electronic message. Their use may be limited to personal communication; they are better avoided in business letters. One may argue that emoticons are substitutes for body language that is effective in personal conversation.

However, emoticons in official or business messages may appear ridiculous. If the recipient is not familiar with the meaning of the emoticon you transmit, it may lead to confusion. Some of the emoticons often used in personal mail are the following.

:-) smiling; agreeing

:)) laughing

:) happy

:( sad

:(( crying

(:| yawn

:"> blushing

:-# my lips are sealed

:-$ don’t tell anyone

:-& sick

:-/ confused

:-? thinking

:-@ screaming

:^D Great! I like it

:| straight face

:-|| angry

:)] on the phone

:O shocked

:-O surprise

:-V shouting

:-w waiting

;) winking

;;) batting eyelashes

@-) hypnotised

^ thumbs up

=D> applause

If you are sending something in a humorous mood in a personal mail, you may give an appropriate smiley to indicate the mood.

Limitations of e-mail

E-mail does not provide the range of possibilities available in face-to-face communication. There is no room for the powerful non-verbal signals, including body language. The surge of emotions that is passed on through eye-contact and appropriate facial expression can never be achieved in e-mail. Even telephone conversations convey the effects of tone and modulation of voice. Emoticons are a poor substitute for all these. An e-mail recipient may misinterpret a humorous remark as a personal insult.

In business mail, you have to limit yourself to official content. If you send both formal and informal communication in the same format, the recipient may take one for the other. The background and the approach should be clear and unequivocal. This can be achieved to a great extent from the tone of the language used in the mail. If not, there is no objection in stating the intention clearly by adding a note like, “Please take it as formal instruction from the CEO.”

If you need an instant response from a person, e-mail is not the right mode of communication; use the telephone. Perhaps, you can send an e-mail message and then tell the person over the phone that you have sent the mail. Even if you get an automatic online intimation that your mail has been opened by the recipient, there is no guarantee that he has read the message carefully. This situation is different from that involving a telephone conversation, which facilitates instant confirmation.

Those who regularly use e-mail may be surprised to learn that there are bureaucrats and other officials who never open the mail themselves. This function is assigned to the secretary, who, in turn, has to take a printout and present it as a paper file before the official. This illustrates how the utility of a fast service is often negated by people who refuse to learn or do anything new, thereby turning a gift into a curse. If e-mail can reduce red tape in officialdom, use the convenience. There is no point in insisting that you will never stop using traditional paper files and red tape. E-mail messages can be easily stored and retrieved at will.

Encrypted email

Sending a piece of confidential information through a plain-text e-mail is best avoided. You will send such confidential information in a sealed envelope when you go forsnail mail. A similar style for protecting your privacy in the e-mail system is achieved by encryption. Remember that your mail does not flow straight from your end to the recipient’s computer. It hops from server to server, and in the process permits the contents to be exposed to a hacker. Encryption is the means to ensure security to your message.

Sending plain-text e-mail is like sending a postcard. You provide only limited information through a postcard. You put your letter containing confidential information in an envelope to prevent it from being tampered with and to protect your privacy. Similarly, encrypting e-mail is the first step to “securing” the contents of your message. One of the most popular methods of e-mail encryption is the use of public-key encryption.

There are different methods of encryption and providing a digital signature, the description of which is beyond our present scope. A recipient who receives a message with your digital signature can be sure that it has come from you, and not anyone misusing your mail id. If you go for encrypting your messages, do this on all your messages. Otherwise, a hacker will easily infer that your encrypted message does contain confidential information. He can, therefore, try to open it, leaving the others that are not encrypted. This is something that you do not want to happen.


We would have been told right from childhood about the styles in good letter writing and proper telephone calls. But we find little guidance in society on fine e-mail etiquette. This is a medium that is being used copiously by us, but with little enlightenment about its nuances and niceties. Therefore, it is not surprising that many improprieties are usually found in e-mail handling. If you want to be good in communication, proper appreciation of e-mail etiquette is essential. The right norms have to be followed.

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