Most of us learned at school to write a couple of all-purpose letters. There was the one to the anonymous bank manager, ending Yours faithfully; the deferential request to the prospective employer, ending Yours sincerely; and the thankyou for a gift or invitation. But where's the equivalent in e-mail?
Flicking down my own in-box, I find a Julie, a Hi Julie, a Hi Guys, a Dear Customer, a morning julie, a hey julie and a Hi there. The messages they accompany, and their sign-offs, are every bit as diverse as the greetings. That's great for individuality, but not so great for being unambiguously understood. That formal letter you learned to write to the bank manager probably did not impress him or her with your creativity and scintillating personality. On the other hand, it was unlikely to be misinterpreted as a veiled request for a date.
E-mail inspires the writer to be casual. The glorious simplicity of calling up a little blank box on the screen, filling in an address, writing a note and then clicking a button to send it immediately, frees e-mailers of the normal constraints. Even the most accomplished writers experience a slight barrier of fear when faced with a sheet of paper and a biro.
E-mail is a lot more like talking than writing, and that makes it a snake-pit of misunderstanding. A gauche remark in conversation can be easily covered by deliberate friendliness in the next, and if you've accidentally offended you're likely to be told so by the other person's expression. If push comes to shove you can actually apologise and explain yourself on the spot.
Not so with e-mail, where it's highly unlikely you'll receive one of those feather-light social cues that let you know some reparation is in order. If you're on the receiving end of a heavy-handed piece of e-mail, it's there on your PC semi-permanently where it festers as you brood on possible interpretations. The offence may be compounded if the same person e-mails you again in the same tone, unaware you have taken them amiss. Because e-mail behaviour does not have rigid social rules, the same action can be construed in a multiplicity of ways. Sending e-mail instead of talking to the person who sits in the next desk can be gleefully conspiratorial if you happen to be swapping comments about the boss while she is standing there - it can also be as hostile as leaving Post-It notes detailing domestic whinges for your flatmate on the fridge.
In the absence of rules there are e-mail Netiquette guidelines. DON'T SHOUT ranks high among them. Arlene Rinaldi, Netiquette authority, says: "Be careful when using sarcasm and humour. Without face to face communications your joke may be viewed as criticism."
She also warns to be "professional and careful in what you say about others. E-mail is easily forwarded," and a corollary: never assume your e-mail is private. Then there's a host of e-communications that can be described under the general heading of bullying. Rinaldi says you should respect the chain of command: don't automatically e-mail the boss just because you can; send your message to a subordinate if it's more appropriate. Don't send officious notices to a whole mailing list: if you need to draw attention to people abusing car-parking privileges or being overly free with the stationery cupboard, e-mail the culprits. Nobody appreciates being told off for something they didn't do and a chiding e-mail feels like accusation, even if rationally you know you were not its intended victim.
It's especially important to show e-mailing restraint when sending messages to companies you do business with. The medium is a whole lot more pervasive now than it was a year ago - put e-mail on the office LAN, add a gateway, and immediately the outside world of clients and suppliers is as accessible as that of colleagues in the same room. That's dangerous.
In Australia e-mail is considered a document in law. Communicating electronically is exactly the same as leaving a paper trail. Moreover, if your employer pays for your Net account, he or she may read the contents of your e-mail. Some are beginning to do so routinely. In a competitive business culture, where companies are increasingly paranoid about industrial espionage and press leaks, firms will take their networks apart to nail a loose-talking employee. Once again, any slackness in expression may not be interpreted as simply a casual, offhand remark, as it might in verbal conversation. Any ambiguities may be used in evidence against you, and if you don't already know someone who has been cautioned or lost their job over an unguarded electronic moment, it's likely that you will in a year or two.
So what's the future for e-mail? A stultifying code of behaviour that inhibits spontaneous communication? Dreary high school e-mail writing lessons? Probably.