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10/18/2004
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The Privacy Lawyer: The Checklist For Cybercommunications

The right--and wrong--ways to make sure your E-mail gets its message across.

  • Proofread and spell-check your E-mails and make sure the recipient knows who you are.
  • Many messages are never understood or are misunderstood because people left out words, or said things unclearly, or misspelled words. While your E-mails don't have to be formal works of art, you should make them clear. If they're important enough to send, they're important enough to be understood. The rules for instant messaging are different, and more grammar mistakes and spelling errors are accepted there.

    Also make sure that you reread what you are sending to make sure it says what you want it to say. If something could be misunderstood, or understood two different ways, either rewrite it or use an emoticon--that is, a "smiley face" or the like--to let them know which meaning you used.

    Also make sure that you sign your E-mails and cybercommunications with a name the recipient will recognize, if you're not using your normal screen name. Don't give away personal information, but telling them that this is a new account or screen name and your old one was [fill in the blank] helps your message get read, instead of trashed. Putting that in the subject line may help.

  • Don't attack others online or say anything that could be considered insulting or controversial.
  • Until you get to know someone very well, it's best to stay away from controversial topics, like politics, religion, race, sex, nationalism, war, special physical or mental limitations, money, and gender-based issues. Once you get to know each other well enough to know what's acceptable, you can get into these topics online--but even then, be very careful. Most cyberproblems start when people are talking about these and similar topics.

    And be especially careful when dealing with people form other cultures and countries online. What may be perfectly acceptable in the United States may not be acceptable in Japan, or England, or Hong Kong, or New Zealand.

    If someone tells you that you hurt their feelings, find out how and apologize. Let them know when you did things without meaning to. If they lash out at you, thinking you did it on purpose, before you attack them back, try explaining that it was accidental.

    Don't use all capital letters (considered shouting online) and be careful about using bad language or being provocative. Don't intentionally say anything to hurt some else's feelings or invade their privacy online or offline. And always scan your system for viruses and malicious code so that you don't send a virus by accident to someone else. (Use a good antivirus program on anything you receive or download to make sure you don't pick up any viruses.)

  • Don't forward other people's E-mails without their permission, or share their personal information.
  • Sometimes, without realizing it, we copy someone new on an E-mail thread. It might contain personal information or a personal communication that someone else shared with only you three levels down and you didn't realize that you were now allowing others to read it. Either delete all but the most recent message when forwarding it, or reread the older threaded messages before forwarding to make sure nothing personal is in those messages. Otherwise, private things may slip through.

  • Are you angry when you are writing a message?
  • If you're writing the E-mail, IM, or post when you're angry, review it carefully. Also take the time to cool down before sending it.

    Are you replying to something that's designed to insult you, flame you, cyberbully you, or harass you? If so, think again. These things go away much faster if you don't reply at all. The person sending them is looking for a reaction. They soon get tired and go away if they don't get any.

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