College of LAS « Illinois

Speech Communication

Be Careful What You Email

There are consequences to bad netiquette.

Workplace gossip can trigger a red face and prickly relationships. But a rogue email message may land you in hot water. A recent incident in Chicago, involving a young woman's email message to friends, cost her plenty.

Unbeknownst to her, her vivid and self-assured recap of a date was forwarded dozens of times, email list to email list. With each forwarding, the message picked up judgmental, even callous, comments about the woman, most of them from people who didn't know her but who found her irritating and the activity amusing. Within a short time, the echain showed up in her date's email box, ending that relationship—and perhaps others.

The story raises a red flag, says Noshir Contractor, a professor of speech communication and psychology in LAS. Despite people's comfort level with email, some people are oblivious to the consequences of bad "netiquette"—manners on the Internet. Even now, he says, "We as a society are still discovering and negotiating the norms for email usage."

According to Contractor, the follow-up email messages demonstrate how the medium is used to regulate its own "usage norms." For example, the first respondent cautioned the woman to be more careful before "hitting the send button." Subsequent respondents cautioned others about using email to send such messages. "So the moral appears to be that such conversation is not inappropriate, but that using email to engage in it is" because it shrinks the "six degrees of separation."

"The young woman found that out when it took only a few forwarded emails before her date became aware of her message. With its incredible ease of forwarding verbatim messages to multiple others, email is liberally greasing the tracks that connect us. Hence, it should not come as a surprise—though it often does—that an email can quickly find itself in the mailbox of an unintended recipient."

Spring 2003