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Email Etiquette Guidelines


A cohousing community can only thrive if there is a strong basis in open communication, respect of widely varying viewpoints, and an accepting, clean method for making those views, ideas, and proposals accessible to everyone who wants to see them. Before the age of email, much of this communication happened in real time. Phone calls, meetings, and, when people couldn’t attend in person, newsletters and minutes mailed out.

In these modern times, email has become the most accessible method for communication for most people in the community, and certainly within Mosaic Commons, the most active. Messages can be drafted, sent to all members of the community, read, and replied to to everyone in a matter of seconds, allowing for very rapid exchanges of ideas.

Unfortunately, this great technology brings with it a host of problems… not technical per se, but patterns that come about primarily because of the technology. Call them Emergent Patterns if you will. The term used doesn’t matter, but the issues are very real.

This document is an open discussion of the pitfalls and challenges in using email as a widely accepted communication mechanism, and proposes guidelines to help mitigate the issues that come with the technology. For the purposes of discussion, we’re focusing on how email is used within Mosaic Commons, but the points here can apply to any community that uses mailing lists and private email for communication.

Mailing lists

There are two primary mailing lists the community uses for general communication. These are :

  • community@mosaic-commons.org - This list is the general mailing list that includes everyone in the community, including associates and non-resident members. As of 2016 Jan 13, there are 91 people on the community list.

  • off-topic@mosaic-commons.org - A second ‘informal’ list (sometimes called ‘MOT’ for Mosaic Off Topic) for discussion of subjects that are not ‘important’ for everyone in the community to read. The original intent was to cut down the amount of non-business mail on the community list, though this has only been partly successful. As of 2016 Jan 13, there are 51 people on the off-topic list

Other non-team specific lists:

  • people - the ‘people@sawyerhill.org’ list includes residents of Mosaic-Commons and Camelot. It is intended for messages that may be of interest to both communities. As of 2015 Jan 13, there are 104 people on the people list.

  • interest@sawyerhill.org - This list is used to communicate messages out to people who are not residents of Mosaic or Camelot, but are may be interested in attending events, hearing about units that are for sale, etc. As of 2015 Jan 13, there are 745 people on the interest list. This list has a small, strictly limited list of authorized senders.

In addition to the general lists, each team has its own mailing list, which is generally accepted to define the members on that team (occasionally someone will join a team mailing list to lurk and not be an active participant in the team. This is generally fine, as long as the user lets the team know they’re there specifically just to lurk). See appendices A and B for a summary of those.

Basic guidelines when using email

Given the large number of lists we work with, and the equally large numbers of people on those lists, it’s important to consider some basic guidelines when posting. Some of these thoughts are most relevant on large lists, but anytime you write mail, to an individual or to a list, consider some of the following points.

  1. Assume Good Intent - When writing a mail message using only written text, all nuance, body language, tone, and sentiment can be lost. It’s very easy for a recipient to see a message in a completely different tone than was intended by the originator. One of the basic tenets to work from is ‘Assume good intent’. It’s very rare someone will post something to be deliberately malicious or attacking. When reading mail, assume the author was trying to be helpful or contribute to the discussion. Certainly, there may be times when this is not the case - see below - but it’s a good idea that in the circumstance where you’ve received a message, and had a strong negative reaction, to sit back, consider the author’s intent to be basically benign, and read the message again.

  2. Consider How it will be Received - The same goes for composing messages. Know that your recipients (and if you’re sending to a list, that could be hundreds of people), are guaranteed not to be in the same exact mindset as you are. Make sure your message is clear and in context so the recipient can frame the message correctly.

    Example. Say someone has posted to a list that they just bought a new coat they’re proud of and have posted a picture.

    Example of a bad reply:
    “I wouldn’t have chosen that..”

    Example of a good reply:
    “I don’t think that’s a style that I would have chosen for myself, but go you!”

    Both responses are factually accurate and state your viewpoint, but the first one can be taken as dismissive and harsh, while the second states more accurately why you wouldn’t have chosen that coat, and gives a little bit of support.

  3. Is this relevant to the conversation? - When replying to a message, particularly on a mailing list where there’s an ongoing discussion about a certain topic (usually whatever the Subject is), make sure your message is still on-topic. If it isn’t, start a new thread. “The thread about coats made me think about going skiing this winter. Anyone want to go?”

    A note, though. Don’t just reply in the thread, manually edit the Subject line to be something else, and post a message. Some mail clients let you do this, but the new Subject will still be considered part of the old thread, and people who are not interested in the topic may not see your message as a change in topic. Start a new thread!

  4. Avoid ‘Me, too’ replies - Particularly on heavy volume mailing lists, it’s considered quite rude to reply to a posting with “me too” or “Yay!” or “LOL”. Remember each time you post a message, it’s going to potentially dozens of people, who will each have to process it, either by deleting it, reading it, or replying to it. Many people get thousands of mail messages a day, and these sorts of mail are intensely irritating. They do nothing to advance the topic being discussed.

  5. Answer off-list if possible - Unless an email to community is the start of a community discussion you should almost always reply off list. If someone posts a question and specifically asks ‘please reply off list’, honor their request and do not reply to the main list (an example is someone requesting referrals for pedicures - they put in their post “replies off list please” - Do not reply to the list with your review of a local pedicurist. If you would like to see what information the person gathers, send them private mail and ask them to either post a summary back to the list, or to the community Wiki, or ask them for whatever information they gather.

  6. Be concise, be direct, be clear - When considering posting to the community list in particular, take time to compose your message clearly and completely. Avoid multiple posts on the same topic, or multiple single line postings. Remember, each message is going to more than 90 people. Posting three times on the same topic in ten minutes means you’ve sent almost 240 mails.

  7. Take a break before you yell - This is a hard one, but may be the most important of all the guidelines. Conversations on the lists can get heated and direct. Emotions run high, and when there’s a lot of mail flying around, it’s easy to Reply and send without taking a moment to calm down. This is an excellent use of the ‘Save as Draft’ function in most mail clients. It’s okay to write really grumpy snipey email, but do yourself a favor, and before you send it, Save as Draft, and come back to it in half an hour, or a few hours, and re-read your message. Chances are, you’ll be calmer about the topic and can be more constructive in the discussion.

  1. Use clear, concise Subject Lines - Subject lines are the great insight into what a piece of email is about. By using well constructed and informative text, you can let your audience know whether the content might be relevant to them or not.

    Subject: Free Printer available on #42 porch.
    Subject: Free!

  2. Dates are Relative - Sometimes in the moment, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is right there in your head with you. So a posting to a large list that says “I’m going to a movie tomorrow night, anyone want to join me?” may seem unambiguous in the moment, but to someone reading that message the next morning, there’s no easy way to determine what evening you’re talking about. Let alone the problem of what “This weekend” or ‘Next Thursday” means! So when possible, put a date on your message. “I’m going to the movie tomorrow night! (9/2 evening)...”

  1. Signatures - It’s common practice to add a bit of text to the bottom of your email, uniquely identifying yourself, perhaps giving some contact information, and while it’s generally accepted to add a pithy quote or some personal statement, signatures should be kept concise. In addition, there is a standard for signatures that allows them to be hidden in long threads. Putting a ‘-- ’ (that’s two dashes, and a blank space) on it’s own line before your signature tells mail clients that text after this is a signature, and does not need to be shown for every mail message in a thread.

    Example of a bad signature:

    This signature is far too long, does not have a leading separator, and is just plain cumbersome. Remember that a signature is attached to every message you send - is it important to send a link to your twitter account on every message?

    A better version of this signature might simply be::
    John Smith - Top Design Firm - jsmith@johnsmith.com - 555-555-5555

    Any more information someone needs can be found by clicking the link. In the good old days of the internet, a .signature more than 4-5 lines long was considered rude and inconsiderate. In modern day email, the best thing you can do is include a separator above your signature. In mail clients like Gmail, users can still click on the -- and see the signature, but in longer threads, the signature will be hidden.

Colors, Fonts, and HTML - Modern mail systems allow for embedded colors, fonts, and other fancy elements to mail. It’s important to remember that mail is a visual, text-based medium, and just as varying fonts in an advertisement or web page is jarring to the senses, adding colors and font changes to your mail can be as disruptive. While it’s tempting to make your mail ‘stand out’ by using special colors and fonts, it’s almost always a good idea to refrain, and use whatever text settings your client provides by default.

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