How many of us remember from our junior high years the single sheet of notebook paper folded countless times with the outside edges tucked in to form a neat package? On the outside was printed, perhaps in “puffy letters,” your best friend’s name. That tiny package was passed along on your way to or from class. The package was, of course, a note. It was an important means of communication, a way to share information.
Our lives have changed since those junior high years, but we still communicate in writing. Today, however, instead of an origami note, we use e-mail, and so do our students. We assume that they know all there is to know about this form of communication technology. While many of our students are adept at using e-mail to communicate with their friends, they do not understand the rules that apply to business e-mail.
To ensure that students understand the difference between the world of junior high notes and professional correspondence, e-mail skills need to be taught in the controlled environment of a classroom. Fortunately this is not difficult, for if everything we needed to know about life we learned in kindergarten, everything we need to know about business e-mail we learned in junior high.
The first rule to teach your students is that they should respond quickly to business correspondence. If they can’t answer promptly, they should send back a brief explanation. Remember the “No time to write now. Teacher’s watching.” message that you got in seventh grade? Teach your students to use the same courtesy. There is nothing more frustrating than sending an important message and not getting a timely response.
Make sure students understand that they must be careful what they write. How many adolescents have discovered this too late as they heard their intercepted message read aloud by the teacher or posted on the bulletin board? In today’s e-mail world, a message could find a much broader audience than 8th-grade English class and be more incriminating than a comment about a teacher’s new hair style.
Teach your students to proofread what they write and to use a spelling checker. I remember one nasty fight between two best friends over a missing word in a message. Losing a best friend might not be a business concern, but losing credibility through careless e-mail messages can be far more serious.
Help your students to learn that they should not stockpile their e-mail. There will be plenty more messages tomorrow. Teach them to read and delete. Unlike Jenny Sue, who kept every note she ever received, they won’t be voted most popular if their mailbox has more mail than anyone else’s. They might be voted most likely to lose or misfile a critical piece of mail. If students must keep their messages, show them how to create folders in which to save them. That way, their incoming mailboxes will remain uncluttered. In addition, learning to filter mail so it goes directly into folders will benefit them now and in their professional lives.
Remember “SWAK”? We all knew that it meant “sealed with a kiss.” Today’s equivalent includes not only abbreviations, but also emoticons (keyboard shortcuts used to reproduce facial expressions such as smily faces :). Advise students to avoid such communication shortcuts. They may work in junior high, but they are inappropriate in the business world. Other forms of shorthand that proliferated in the early years of the Internet should be avoided as well. For example, the abbreviation “BTW” could mean “by the way” or “but that’s why.” Unless students know their audience will understand an abbreviation, have them get used to writing out the words.
What we have today that we would have loved in junior high are e-mail address books. Teach your students to keep theirs up-to-date by reviewing them frequently and deleting entries that are no longer valid. Make sure they understand that just because they can send a note to everyone on a mailing list, they should resist the urge. Have them ask themselves if the recipient really wants to have a copy of a memo sent to another person? Often they don’t.
Remember the name found on the front of the folded note? It wasn’t just to clarify who the note was for. It was a courtesy, a way to personalize the exchange. Have your students use the same good manners when they e-mail. They should take the time to include a salutation and a closing, even if they simply begin with the person’s name and end with theirs. Have students experiment with the signature options found in most e-mail software. For example, they can end their notes automatically with business card information.
Most of us have come to take for granted the ability of students to use the latest technology. What we forget is that they still need to be taught how to use these tools in a professionally acceptable manner. Teaching business e-mail is an important task, but one of the easiest. Teach your students to use the skills that were developed long ago, and they won’t go wrong in today’s world.