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Communication Etiquitte – Don't Betray Me!

Updated on March 2, 2013

E-mail has the advantage of being a fast an efficient way to express yourself in writing to an intended audience. It is particularly useful for busy people who have a specific message to communicate. It eliminates the polite niceties (and subsequent sidetracking) required for a phone conversation. Personally, I am not a fan of spending extended time on the phone, and in my workplace (a school), sitting and composing e-mail messages is much more conducive to a quiet classroom environment.

Another advantage to written communication is that it is a visual reference. Messages stay in my inbox until I have time to address them, while verbal conversations may be quickly forgotten, unless I am prepared with a post-it and pen to write things down while talking.

Here is the drawback, however. Things written for a specific person can then be shown to persons that the message was not intended for. As a writer, this always takes me by surprise, and disturbs me perhaps more than it should. Writers, though, write with audience in mind. Is this for everyone's eyes? Well then, it will be general, and not inflammatory. A few select people? More personal, maybe more revealing. One person in particular? Honest, then, I have nothing to worry about except forthright communication.

Here is an example. I was told by the principal that there was no position for me next year. Next, I found out that I had missed an important meeting with the Human Resources person who was in our rural area with the express purpose of meeting with the teachers in my position. Then, I received some incorrect information from the principal as to how to expect things to proceed.

Finally, I gave up going through my principal and wrote the Human Resources person directly, telling her pretty much all of this information and begging her to communicate directly with me. She responded and cc'd the entire correspondence to the principal.

This shocked and disturbed me because for one, I live in such a rural area that I want to stay on good terms with all of the principals, two, I may end up getting my same good job back next year and working for the same man, and three, he is very nice, just a little inept in this situation. As a general rule, I don't like to hurt people's feelings or offend them.

Another example happened last week with a friend of mine. We work together on a committee that discusses issues between teachers and administrators. She is responsible for putting out the agenda of items to discuss. I wrote her an email asking her to add to the agenda staff complaints about a particular teacher that was not controlling his students. Rather than add it to the agenda, she just sent my e-mail out to the entire staff, including, of course, the poor teacher who was the subject of the e-mail.

I couldn't sleep for three nights. My e-mail was not meant for the entire staff, it was meant for her. There is a reason this committee uses the format of the agenda...items are added without names attached so that they can be discussed honestly.

I have yet to return to work and deal with this situation. I was hoping that by writing this, I could organize my thoughts on e-mailing and relieve some stress. Is the answer to not communicate in writing? That would be a shame, although many people have probably already come to that conclusion.

That would mean always writing with the thought that Everyone may be reading your writing. I guess that may be a good general rule, but seems to me to interfere with honest communication. I seem to have a personality that on one hand does not want to offend, and on the other wants to call it like I see it. These two extremes cause much internal turmoil.

Have you ever had someone betray your trust with your written or recorded communication?

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How about adding a “signature” to all of my e-mails that reads something like this:

“My written communication is meant for your eyes only. Please do not forward, return cc, or otherwise share this information without permission from me.”

To me, a writer, this is a given. In the modern age, though, people forward, cc, or copy and paste to save time and do not give a thought to either audience, copyright, or author's purpose. My own husband has betrayed me and sent an e-mail correspondence between my sister-in-law and I to his parents. There was nothing too shocking in the exchange, but still I was furious. I excused him because he was not a writer, although I made sure to let him know my thoughts about that kind of action.

This kind of betrayal is not just expressly for e-mail. My brother-in-law saved a voicemail message of mine on his cellphone for three months once and played it back to me. We were in disagreement about the date that we were moving out of a family house and he was moving in. My message said “Don't worry, we will be moved out on time!” How is that proof? I thought that on time was the 10th , when our moving van was scheduled to arrive, and he thought it was on the 1st.

Another co-worker did this with a controversial proposal I had written up. I had typed it, then clipped a handwritten note on it that said “can we discuss this?” He responded by making copies of it for ten people at a meeting and handing it out for everyone to read and discuss. I had trouble holding back tears, and I know my face was bright red.

Communication Etiquette – Audience

  1. Treat communication addressed to you as private, whether it be voice, video, or handwritten, e-mail, or text.
  2. If you would like to forward it or bring another person into the exchange, get the permission of all parties involved first.
  3. Know that, if you violate either number one or two above, you are either intentionally or unintentionally breaking the trust of the person who is attempting to communicate honestly with you, and such communication may not happen again in the future.


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