Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt, the saying goes. And so it is with electronic mail, which despite its high-tech cachet nonetheless carries a peril for the unwary communicator: saying too much, or saying it clumsily.
E-mail is quickly substituting for paper mail at many companies, especially for internal communications. Charles Ray, a business professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., says many people with e-mail access haven't been trained to use it, have poor writing skills, or mistakenly think they can ignore the formalities of writing.
"We have a whole new generation of business employees who need extensive work on their writing," says Ray, who teaches business education and office administration. People in a business setting normally wouldn't send out sloppily written letters through the regular mail system. "Yet people today don't think it is important to practice the same rules with e-mail," Ray says. "They'll send messages with misspellings, typos or fail to recheck facts."
"Writing on-line certainly is more spontaneous and casual, because it normally is more like a conversation than a formal article," says Tom Geddie, a Dallas consultant. "But the informality isn't bad. Sloppiness is bad."
Jack Mingo of Alameda, Calif., an author, trend-watcher and regular on the Internet "misc.writing" group, says e-mail often has an unguarded quality that can result in communicating more than intended. "Mistakes show, weaknesses of style and spelling show. And weaknesses of logic," he says. "Sarcasm, pomposity, anger, self-pity, and other odd clues to the person are often revealed. There's a kind of nakedness...."
Gary Arlen, president of a Bethesda, Md., media research firm who admits to sending e-mail with typos, explains: "The nature of e-mail is that you always think you're just dashing off a quick message."