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Are you being funny?

Or how to present a joke in an email

As someone who once had a job with, wait for it, no email account, it took me a while to get to grips with the vagaries of professional e-conversational etiquette.

I won't bore you with my reply-to-all story (we've all got one), but I reckon I'm now pretty much au fait with how formally one should address work contacts.

I've dismantled my 10-deck autosignature - realising that not everyone needs to know my parents' dog's fax number - and even have a vague idea of when to BCC and when not to BCC (for that is the question).

However, one aspect of e-communication continues to cause me grief. Consider the 'joke signifier'.

Email is naturally more conversational than writing a letter - but it lacks tone. As a consequence, mildly insulting (but nonetheless amusing) sarcasm can be misread as merely insulting (and deeply unfunny) diatribe. Which is not always the way to get on at work.

At one point it seemed that the best way to indicate that a joke was indeed a joke was the humble exclamation mark. Perhaps it is the sub editor in me, but exclamation marks are disgusting things. And they afford deeply unamusing people the opportunity to 'spice up' their copy through the use of multiples. It's just not funny!!!!!!!!!!!!! See!!!!

Realising this, email's early adopters introduced the smiley :-)

Leaving aside the way these sow confusion amongst more venerable PC users (over 30s, for instance - they keep expecting lists that never happen), they're also pretty lame. And even with his cheeky wink, Mr Smiley was never going to last. ;-(

These days? Every second email I receive contains an 'amusing' aside, signified only by the inappropriate use of an ellipsis... (Incidentally, an ellipsis is three full stops - no more or less - with a space after but not before. Accept no substitute... )

Perhaps someone should get on to the good, good people at Microsoft and get them to invent some kind of colour coding etiquette for Outlook. We could agree a blanket rule that jokes are written only in purple (because, let's face it, purple is the funniest colour). Either that or I have no sense of humour.

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