HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsLocal drummer:Email isn’t evil, (but we can make it so)

Local drummer:Email isn’t evil, (but we can make it so)


Electronic mail is one of the biggest ways in which companies lose productivity, waste time and squander resources. And it’s not because email itself is inherently evil, nor even because of stupid chain emails that people still haven’t figured out are totally inappropriate, no matter how sanctimonious they may seem. No, I am referring here to badly written, unnecessarily copied, unprofessionally constructed and ineffectively appointed business communication that clogs our inboxes every day, clouding our judgement, inciting our emotions and helping us garner an unhealthy disrespect for one another.

Report by Thembe Khumalo

In most companies, email is the primary method of communication for staff at all levels of the production process. According to Forbes.com, your ability to write effective and professional emails is now just as, if not more important than, your verbal and non-verbal skills when it comes to communication. For your amusement, I thought I would point out a few of the types of email that grate on this particular set of nerves.

The “Covering my back email” — this one is sent by graduates of the “If it’s not in writing, it doesn’t exist” school of business practice, and the main objective of such an email is for the writer to be able to refer back to it at a later date as evidence that they communicated with you. It may not actually tell you what you need to know, but in doing its work as a piece of a defending party’s evidence, it becomes fully effective.

Then there is the “I couldn’t tell you to your face, so . . . ” email. This type of email is really an act of professional cowardice. When a colleague has done something thy shouldn’t have, undermined your authority or made some decisions behind your back, they send this email as a way of smoothing over and legitimising what has been done. They can’t tell you to your face, so email comes in handy.

This is also used to circumvent trouble if something should have been shared earlier, but wasn’t.

The sender then hopes that the email system can somehow take the blame in his place.

The “Naming and shaming” email. This type of mail is not just professional cowardice, but moral cowardice too. It’s the email sent by someone who is reporting on others, but can’t bear to confront them, and so prefers to communicate about them instead. This is sent by people who want to garner favour with superiors and who generally forget that one of the best things about email is how easily it can be forwarded and shared.

By contrast, there is the “I’m depending on the viral nature of electronic comms for my success” email. People who send this type of email are usually either lazy or super smart or have malicious intent — sometimes they are all of the above!

They know how fast and how far electronic communication can spread, and depend on this viral nature of the medium for a successful campaign.

Whether it’s a product or service they are trying to promote, or a damaging and mischievous rumour, the sender depends on the epidemic nature of email for a satisfactory conclusion to this exercise.

The one not worth mentioning — “If you love Jesus, please send this to 10 other people, or something awful will happen to you . . . ” It never ceases to amaze me how so many years after we have become accustomed to email, there are still people who forward mindless irritants, that end with lines like, “Send this to 10 other people and the one who sent it to you.” Does anyone ever actually think the blessings of God are dependent on them irritating 10 other people with an unsolicited nonsense? A colleague and I devised a succinct response to these and we have found it works like a charm. It goes something like this:
“Dear Mrs X. By sending me this mail you make many assumptions about the nature of our relationship as well as my work situation, not to mention assumptions about Jesus Christ himself and his position on chain mail. I imagine many of your assumptions are incorrect and would, therefore, ask that you respect our professional relationship by not sending me this type of sanctimonious noise.”

A quick alternative for personal mail boxes is : Dear John I know we are friends, and this is my personal mail box, but even here I don’t enjoy having my time wasted by meaningless drivel.

Having mentioned the unmentionable here are some basics.

Who to send an email to: Deciding carefully and clearly who the recipients of your email should be is an important part of getting the business communication etiquette right.

The subject: If you have the wrong one, the right people might never read your mail! And yes, you are allowed to edit the subject line when you reply or forward so that it makes sense for the contents of that particular mail!

The cc: Don’t copy everyone you know. Just those that need to know the contents of that particular mail.

The style: There is a difference between being informal and being sloppy. Text shorthand is not acceptable in professional mail.

The length: be brief.

The font: write emails in sentence case. Use bold or italics or enlarge font size for emphasis. Don’t write the whole thing in CAPS or bold.

Finally – remember, email isn’t private. Don’t put anything in an email that you would not one day be able to defend.

  • lThembe Khumalo writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to


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