Jan 29, 2015
Before You Hit Send

Are you putting your best face forward when you communicate online?

By Dr. Chadron Hazelbaker

Chadron Hazelbaker, PhD, ATC, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, is an Assistant Professor at Eastern Washington University and Athletic Trainer at Liberty High School in Spangle, Wash. He is also the NATA District 10 Clinical and Emerging Practice of Athletic Trainers Committee (CEPAT) representative, and can be reached at: [email protected].

If you’re under 25 or so, electronic communication probably doesn’t seem like new technology–you’ve been text messaging, e-mailing, and chatting online for years. You understand all the acronyms, have mastered the art of conveying meaning four words at a time, and know WHAT YELLING LOOKS LIKE on a computer screen.

But for those of us from an earlier generation, e-communication is still a new frontier. Having grown up relying on face-to-face contact and writing notes longhand, we approach this technology from a different perspective and with different expectations. As you work with professors and others in your ATEP, and eventually seek your first job, you’ll need to remember that how you present yourself electronically can leave a lasting impression–good or bad.

Here are some pointers to help make sure your e-correspondence is effective and trouble-free:

Consider the recipient. When e-mailing your friends, you might not always bother with punctuation, capital letters, or complete sentences. But when writing to a professor, coach, or potential employer, informal and sloppy messages can make you seem careless, unprofessional, and even disrespectful.

That doesn’t mean every e-mail has to be five paragraphs long. Head athletic trainers often receive tons of e-mail, so it’s also important to get your point across as efficiently as possible. If you can say everything in two or three well-written, concise sentences, your recipient will appreciate it.

Use the subject line. Students sometimes send me e-mails with a subject line of “Hi” or “Re:” This can be frustrating, since it doesn’t tell me whether I need to act on the message immediately or if it can wait until later. Clear, informative subject lines help people organize their inboxes, especially if they receive a lot of e-mail. For example, a subject line that says “AT coverage for 6/16 soccer game” is much better than just “Games” or “Coverage.”

Remember your “netiquette.” Recently, I received an e-mail from one of my students after I evaluated a paper he wrote. He felt the paper had been harshly graded, and sent me a diatribe criticizing the grading, the textbook, and the way I conducted class discussions. He also called me some very unprofessional names. Needless to say, it was an inappropriate use of e-mail and made me question the student’s ability to relate to others.

It’s easy for electronic communication to feel anonymous–the person you’re “talking to” isn’t right in front of you, so if you’re upset about something, you might be inclined to let your emotions take over. Before sending something you’ll regret, it’s wise to step back for a moment, relax, and re-examine the issue with a cool head.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t put it in an e-mail or text message. The basic rules of decency and good manners still apply, and perhaps matter even more so, since every message you send leaves a lasting record.

Beware of tone. Misunderstandings happen often in electronic communications. Sarcasm, humor, and other conversational nuances get lost without the benefit of body language, facial expressions, and voice inflection. When communicating with friends, you may have found ways around this, but older people and professional contacts might not speak the same language.

For example, acronyms like “lol” and “omg” mean nothing to many adults. In addition to confusing your recipient, shorthand like that can make you come off as immature or not serious about what you’re doing.

Don’t expect privacy. Nothing is private when it comes to e-mails, text messages, and other electronic communication. Information is backed up on servers, messages can be accidentally forwarded, and text and photos can be posted to places you never intended.

Before you e-mail someone that joke, funny picture, or off-handed comment, ask yourself this question: Would I be willing to print this on a T-shirt and wear it to class, the athletic training room, and everywhere else I might go today? If the answer is no, it’s probably best to keep it to yourself. You can’t be sure who will end up seeing whatever you send.

This rule should extend to your use of social networking sites as well. You might think you’re just venting to friends about a tough professor or a difficult athlete, but even postings labeled “private” have fallen into the wrong hands. It is now common practice for people in charge of hiring to search the Web for applicants’ MySpace pages, Facebook accounts, and other social networking presences. Compromising photos and unflattering posts have plagued many a job seeker, and the problem will only worsen as searching tools get more and more advanced.

Choose your name wisely. Nothing will cause people to judge you and question your seriousness and professionalism more quickly than a cutesy, offensive, or bizarre user name. For example, resist the urge to send e-mails to professors or potential employers using an address that identifies you as beerchugger22, soccerhottie21, or pongstud56. I once had a student e-mail me to ask for a letter of recommendation, and the first thing I noticed was that her address began with crzysxything. I recommended that she use a different e-mail account when sending out her resume.

Follow up in person. Nothing beats old-fashioned conversation for clearing up misunderstandings or explaining something complicated. Don’t get so caught up in the convenience of texting and e-mailing that you forget it may be simpler to stop by someone’s office or call them on the phone.

Besides cutting down the chances of miscommunication, there’s another important benefit to not overusing e-communication: People are much more likely to remember a friendly face and a short, pleasant conversation than an e-mail they received along with 25 others. You can make a positive impression that will pay off the next time you ask for a recommendation, or when you hope your resume makes its way to the top of the pile.

There’s no doubt about it: Technology has changed the way we communicate, and brought with it a lot of positives. But to take advantage of the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls, you have to be careful and use common sense. By keeping these rules in mind, you can eliminate the fear of “sender’s remorse” and make sure your voice is heard just the way you want.

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