Email Etiquette for Virtual Collectives
Originally posted here.
Guidelines we’ve adopted to avoid email pathologies and reproducing power imbalances and distortions:
– Avoid always being the first person to weigh in on a discussion.
– Keep your interventions short if possible. Lengthy emails convey the impression that you are the authority and sends a signal that you own the issue. They also create large email strings that make it even harder for others to catch up on.
– If you have already intervened, do not do so again unless you are merely clarifying your own point, until others have had a chance to weigh in. Don’t use the guise of clarification to simply restate your own position. Do clarify if you feel you have been misunderstood or misinterpreted.
– Do not write emails clarifying other’s positions, or rephrasing debates or discussions started by others. Again this signals that you “own” the issue, or have the authority to pose questions to the group but others do not. It is paternalistic, however well-intentioned.
– If you do feel you must rephrase a discussion make sure to include all the points presented by others, not just token points, which you then link to your own take on the issue.
– Be aware of gender. It is a sad fact that both men and women (even feminists ) perceive male voices as more authoritative than women’s. Think about whether you are unconsciously falling into that pattern. Make an effort to consciously validate all voices in your interventions. Be aware of gender imbalances in communication.
– Make an effort to participate. Even if you just respond very briefly it helps others to feel they are being heard, that others are listening and taking part. (This applies only to those who have not intervened. People who feel they need to validate / respond to every other person’s voices are in fact exerting dominance over the group. This is email communication not Rogerian therapy).
– Avoid always or only responding to certain people.
– Avoid carrying on conversations back and forth between 2 people. Pretend you are in an assembly.
– Be aware of how communication reproduces power relations in the group. If you are one of the people who tends to dominate or participate a lot, think about your own interventions. There is a fine line between being helpful and dominating / controlling communication. If you participate little, think about why that is. Suggest ways to improve communication. Be aware of power imbalances and your own role in reproducing them.
– Seriously consider setting up a
Titan Pad (now defunct, Google Drive/Docs/Sheets is a similar tool) and then move discussion and proposals over to that space. Send email notifications about new PADS workspaces and remind people to participate.
– Remember having more expertise (or thinking you do) does not actually confer you with more authority
– Be aware of different rhetorical styles. Men for example often speak with the voice of authority (e.g. I can attest that… I think we should do X…We should do X… As someone with X years of experience in X, I can say that…). Women often adopt a more reflexive/open style (I wonder if we might…Maybe we could…Perhaps it might be a good idea to…). Remember just because something is said with authority does not make it nay more valid. Saying something more hesitantly or reflexively does not make it any less valid. Different cultures often adopt different discursive styles, some more direct, some much less so.
– Be aware of time zone differences and very real differences in people’s ability to have time to engage in email. Having more time to spend on email confers more power to influence discussions (it shouldn’t but it does). Be aware that your ability to engage in a discussion does not actually confer you with more authority in a group, and try to be reflexive about the frequency and length of your interventions.
– In email, people arriving “later to the party” often feel that consensus has been reached already or that they have missed the part of the discussion where they can usefully intervene. For this reason, among others, often a
Titan Pad collective workspace is a better idea.
– Actively seek alternatives to email for decision making processes of any importance, especially those involving how the group works internally, items relating to strategy, or issues where a quorum really should be in place.
– Start with the premise that email poses real barriers to participation for many reasons. Many groups operate on the assumption that email is inherently democratic, horizontal and participatory, and have remarkably little reflexivity about email. This is a mistake. Because email is so engrained in our daily practices, we often fail to see the negative impacts it has or can have.