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Accidental delivery and other e-mail traps

By Kevin Voigt
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(CNN) -- "Whoops..."

That's the last thing you want to say after sending an e-mail. Like a former colleague of mine at The Wall Street Journal, who nervously asked a co-worker to delete an e-mail she mistakenly sent to her (an unlikely request to the journalist, who opened the note and learned the sender thought she was a "b----"). Or an outgoing editor who sent a reporter a note -- intended for the new editor -- describing the employee as a "know-it-all."

Accidental delivery is only one issue that bedevils the e-mail office culture -- loss of productivity due to constant e-mail interruption and angry e-mail arguments are on the rise. More than one in five companies reported they had fired employees due to e-mail misuse, according to a 2003 study of 1,100 companies sponsored by the American Management Association.

And the emotional tone of e-mails only stands a 50-50 chance of being accurately understood by the reader, according to a joint study at New York University and the University of Chicago early this year.

"The problem of e-mail is basically two things: volume and interpretation," said Adrian Furnham, a professor of psychology and business at University College of London.

"The scariest thing is just seeing people's in-boxes and the amount of effort dealing with notes as they comes in -- or rather failing to deal with it," said Jeremy Wagstaff, author of the recent book, "Loose Wire: A Personal Guide to Making Technology Work for You." "The vast majority of people -- whether CEOs or ordinary grunts -- can't seem to get their e-mail organized."

Even in the supposedly "flat" organizational structure of many technology companies, class warfare is being waged via e-mails, according to David Owens, a management researcher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Owens dissected 30,000 e-mails of a defunct California high-tech company four years ago and found e-mail style revealed where workers rank in the company.

" I avoid using humor in e-mails; it doesn't travel well, especially British irony" - Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology and business, University College of London

Top executives tend to send terse e-mails that suggest "I'm too busy," Owens said. Middle managers are chronic "cc:ers," sending long, verbose e-mails to many recipients as an attempt build influence in their corporate ladder climb. (They also are most likely to send e-mails late at night as a way to saying, "Look how late I work," he said). Lower-level employees are more likely to forward jokes and lace their notes with emoticons, he said.

No matter where you sit in the corporate food chain, too much e-mail appears to be bad for your brain: A study last year in Britain found that use of e-mail, because of its constant interruptions, decreased IQ and concentration more than smoking marijuana. The survey of 1,100 people, sponsored by Hewlett Packard and TNS Research, found that the IQ scores of volunteers fell by 10 points during the day as they juggled messages and work, compared to a 4-point drop of those smoking cannabis.

To clear up the haze created by e-mail, Wagstaff -- who writes a popular Web log on technology ( -- said "you have to aim at the end of the day to make sure there is nothing in your inbox, otherwise you will always be backpedaling." Answer immediately anything that can be done in two minutes: longer than that, put in a folder categorized by project or subject matter for later response.

A good way to assist is to create filters which automatically forward mail by subject or sender to the appropriate folder. Holding fire before replying can also avoid falling into a flame-out fight: "There has really been a demise of the considered response, we tend to not reply to e-mail in a way that is conducive to business," he said.

"I avoid using humor in e-mails; it doesn't travel well, especially British irony," said Furnham, the business psychologist. Although he receives on average 100 e-mails a day, he has a policy never to e-mail anyone on his same floor, tries to send no more than 10 e-mails a day --only one of which can be "cc:ed" to multiple recipients. "If I haven't responded to an e-mail in 48 hours, I delete it," he said.

Added Wagstaff, "The benefits of all this is you feel on top of what you're doing and making more of a mental space to be a proactive person than constantly reactive."


Sending and receiving e-mails has become a ubiquitous aspect of office culture.




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