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"Netiquette:" Email Etiquette for Leaders

Liz Thompson Grapentine
Oak Park, Illinois, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 33 No. 5, August-September 1997, p. 84

Are you a fledging computer geek Leader exploring email chat lists and The Leader Connection (TLC)? Or are you a full-fledged citizen of cyberspace with your own Web site, receiving email from mothers requesting breastfeeding help?

It's a brave new world out there with many opportunities for Leaders to provide support, through contact with breastfeeding mothers, and be supported, through contact with other Leaders. Although some aspects of leading online may seem confusing and strange, the good news is that common sense and your experience as a Leader will stand you in good stead. Most questions about leading in cyberspace can be answered by yourself- based on information readily available to you as a Leader-or by contacting the appropriate support person.

"Netiquette" or email etiquette is a set of common sense rules designed to keep discourse through email (be that a private exchange of messages or public posts to chat lists) civil, polite and respectful. Any written communication can be misleading, even between the most erudite of writers. Humans depend on tone of voice, nuance of pronunciation and body language to help them interpret conversations. Without these, a sentence that seems perfectly innocuous to the writer may, to the reader, seem sarcastic, funny or simply rude.

To avoid misunderstandings, many devotees of email use emoticons (little icons made from punctuation marks) to help the reader identify the writer's tone. For example, if the writer fears that a tongue-in-cheek remark may be taken seriously, she may add this symbol ;-) to her sentence. The winking smiley face (turn your head sideways to see it!) lets the reader know that the writer is just kidding around.

A list of emoticons is included on The Leader Connection Home Page, reachable through subscription to TLC's Email List [ed note: this is no longer available]

Cyberspace communication requires a certain level of flexibility and forgiveness. Email readers need to forgive when they are hurt inadvertently by another's words. Email writers need to offer an explanation and apology when their words are misunderstood. Just as Group co-Leaders use HRE skills, cyberspace co-Leaders will want to keep HRE skills handy, too.

When a reader is offended by a writer's words, direct private statements to the writer in the form of an "I-message" will often get to the root of a misunderstanding, bringing quick relief to both parties.

Many Leaders participate on email chat lists, newsgroups or places on the internet like Parent Soup Chats, all outside LLL. If she has identified herself as a Leader, any statement made could potentially reflect on LLLI. Because information is disseminated so rapidly on the Internet, one poorly chosen phrase can really hurt our reputation.

"Hundreds of posts brimming with HRE can be negated by one flame (heated, hurtful or disrespectful words) when you are having a bad day," says Sue Ann Kendall, LLL Web Site Manager. Choose your words carefully, consider waiting before sending an emotionally charged reply and remember that you are, as the LEADER'S HANDBOOK says, "the visible representative of La Leche League," even on the Internet!

Just as in real life, Leaders are sometimes unable to work out problems alone. When flames are thrown among online co-Leaders, the help of a support person may be needed to bring the situation back under control. Support persons for email problems are the owners and list administrators of TLC: Sue Ann Kendall, Kathleen Bruce and Cindy Smith.

Other breaches of "netiquette" to avoid:

  • Posting private email to a public forum or sharing private email with others. For example, if Lucy Leader sends a message only to Lisa Leader, Lisa should not share Lucy's message with others unless she receives Lisa's permission to do so.
  • Sending attachments, files or pictures to an email list. Please don't! These can crash (stop) some internet servers, thereby inconveniencing thousands of people.
  • Posting messages that could embarrass Leaders or LLL. Remember that although TLC is a private list (only Leaders may participate) internet security is imperfect. Consider the public image of LLL at all times and send posts carefully.
  • Posting messages that could be libelous or slanderous. These types of messages put everyone at risk for lawsuits even if the comments made have some basis in truth. There is legal precedent set in several cases involving comments on the internet.
  • Using TLC instead of a Leader's support system. TLC is not an official arm of LLLI or its regional or local administrative units. Leaders should always consult with their immediate support person if they have administrative questions.

Another issue that may arise is Leader Applicant use of email and chat lists. Leaders need to keep in mind that Applicants who are online seek connections with each other in the same way they might use opportunities provided by workshops, conferences and other LLL gatherings. They may compare experiences, share concerns, ask questions and offer each other support and encouragement. When you talk with an Applicant about sources of information, LLL's support structure and "LLL truth and myth," you might paraphrase the following:

Like attending conferences and workshops, being online can give you many opportunities to make contact with other Leader Applicants and gain a broader view of LLLI. Keep in mind that just as information and misinformation about breastfeeding can be passed from one mother to another, so can information and misinformation about the application time, the leadership role or LLLI. When you wonder about something you read or hear, I encourage you to bring your questions to me and your Associate/Coordinator of Leader Accreditation (A/CLA) so that we can find the answers together.

While difficulties happen when Leaders are online, there are many more positive opportunities for growth, support and encouragement. Leaders in cyberspace can touch and help so many mothers. What a wonderful chance to enhance the growth of breastfeeding worldwide! Let's make the best use of this new challenge: using the Internet to bring Leaders closer together as well as bring breastfeeding information and support to mothers.

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