Braille Monitor                                                    January 2008

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Ask Miss Whozit

A formal place setting, complete with placecard bearing the Whozit logo and the words "Miss Whozit."From the Editor: From time to time Miss Whozit answers reader questions about etiquette and good manners, particularly as they involve blindness. If you would like to pose a question to Miss Whozit, you can send it to the attention of Barbara Pierce, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, or email me at <>. I will pass the questions along. Letters may be edited for space and clarity. Here are the most recent letters Miss Whozit has received:

Dear Miss Whozit,

As you know, the email age is upon us. The NFB has many enjoyable and informative listservs. Could you talk about email etiquette? I have read posts from people who have been downright rude to others. Other folks apparently enjoy gossiping about people on the lists as though they were talking in the privacy of their own living rooms. This spoils my enjoyment of the listserv experience, and I can’t believe that it is acceptable behavior. What do you think?

Civility Online

Dear Civility,

Miss Whozit could not agree more with you. Rudeness, insults, verbal attacks, and incivility have no more place in Internet posts of any kind than they have in face-to-face discussion. Of course some hot-headed people indulge in such comments in person, but many more exhibit this provocative and tactless behavior when they can hide behind the anonymity of a first name or email identity. I trust that I need not point out that ladies and gentlemen never stoop to insults and verbal attacks just because no one knows exactly who they are. In the same way courtesy and good etiquette demand that one refrain from discussing or gossiping about other people in any public setting, virtual or real. The test is simple: if you would not make the comment to the person’s face, don’t make it in an email post.

As long as our current topic is email, Miss Whozit would like to start the new year with her own small rant about general email etiquette. There is no right or wrong way to send an email message, but many users have slid into inconsiderate habits that are annoying enough to constitute discourtesy to those who read, or try to read, their posts. Here are a few tips that, if adopted by everyone, would markedly raise the level of civility and efficiency in all email exchanges. If you follow them, those to whom you send messages will bless you, and, who knows, they may even reform their ways. This list is drawn from the summer 2006 edition of the Buckeye Bulletin, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio.

Be sure that your subject line accurately reflects the content of your message. This is especially important if you are sending messages to a mailing list. If you are really going to talk about your dog, you don't want the subject of your message to be "my favorite screen reader."
And while we are on the subject of writing messages to a listserv, be very careful to answer personal or individual questions or requests off-list. Few things are more discouraging than downloading seventy-five messages, only to find that sixty of them are from other listserv members responding to an invitation to participate in some off-list program or opportunity. Everyone on the list does not need to know that Joe wants the demo tape. Take note of the address of the person making the offer and write a separate email message to that person only. Also please take mercy on other list readers and stifle your impulse to respond to the entire list with the news that you agree with what Jean has said or by thanking John for his views. If you must respond, do it off list.

If you are sending an attachment, please indicate that fact. You may do this in the subject line, the body of your message, or both. If the recipient does not know to look for an attachment, a blind person may delete the message without ever noticing the attachment. Don't send an attachment unless it is necessary to do so. You must send an attachment if you want to send a word-processed file, a database file, a program, or a picture. But some email programs do not permit the user to receive attachments. If this is the case, the sender can do nothing about it.

Sign your name at the end of the message. This does not have to be done with a closing such as “Sincerely.” Just put your name at the end to signify that you have completed the message.

Many email programs permit a writer to scroll through a received message and make inserted comments. This is convenient for the sender because it ensures that the writer will not forget to comment on any part of the message or forget to answer a question. If you decide to engage in this form of response, however, remember that a blind reader of your message will have to reread his or her entire message, looking for your insertions. Making sure that you do not forget to respond to anything in the original message may be important enough to justify this inconvenience to the reader, but understand that this is what you are demanding of him or her.

When forwarding a message, it is courteous to everyone to delete the headers. Unless there is a reason for doing so, it is not necessary to show the origin of a message. Often the message is a great joke or good story that has already been forwarded to many people. By the time the recipient of your message struggles through all of the headers listing everyone that every sender has sent the message to, he or she has usually lost interest in or appreciation for the content of the message. Instead, copy the story or joke to your clipboard and exit the message entirely. Then you can open a new message to the group of your friends to whom you want to pass the information. Drop the text into the edit field from the clipboard. Everyone who gets to read the message without digging through pages of names and email addresses will bless you, and the recipients of your message will not have access to the email addresses of everyone who received the message before you did.

In the same spirit, if you can place the names of the people to whom you are sending a message in the blind carbon copy (bcc) field, you will protect the identity of your friends and business colleagues. It will also spare the next generation of readers from having to scroll down through your list of recipients, assuming that your recipients decide to pass along your words of wisdom or humor without copying the text to a new message.

My final note is addressed, as far as I know, to AOL users only. When the rest of us forward a message, the recipient can open the message and immediately read what has been forwarded. But if the message is from an AOL user, for some reason our email providers receive the entire forwarded message as an attachment. If, Heaven forbid, the message passes through the hands of several AOL users, the final reader must dig down through layer after layer of attachments, opening each and passing through to the message within. The solution is simple. If the AOL user highlights the text he or she wishes to pass along to other people, it can be copied to the clipboard and dropped into an entirely new message in the edit field. Your readers will receive your message and go straight to the text you want them to see without minutes of extra effort.

As I have already said, there are no hard and fast rules for sending email. Just think of these tips as good manners. They are not laws, but using them makes life more pleasant for everyone. Your coworkers and friends will enjoy receiving the email you send them a lot more if you employ these tips.

Note: Miss Whozit would no doubt be delighted to know that National Braille Press ( has just published a new book titled, “SEND: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home.” It is available for $19.95 in Braille, or as a CD ROM Portabook or Portabook download.

Dear Miss Whozit,

With today's social conventions, I am never sure when it is appropriate to shake a person's hand. As a twenty-one-year-old college student, I do not wish to appear rude by not shaking hands with someone older than me. At the same time, it is generally considered inappropriate to shake hands with other students. However, during introductions, other students have sometimes said to me, "I'm trying to shake your hand," or "I have my hand out for you." I find it embarrassing when I do not shake someone's hand when it is expected, but it is equally embarrassing to extend my hand into space and have to pull it back. As a general rule I was taught that you shake professors' hands and those of other people who are older than you, e.g., friends’ parents or people of importance like the mayor, president, etc. Can you advise me about how best to deal with such situations so that I do not embarrass myself? I would like to conduct myself in a way that is socially acceptable. Because of this anxiety, social situations make me uncomfortable.


Dear Embarrassed,

Shaking hands is one of those rituals of social interaction that can leave one feeling insecure. Good for you, however, for caring about conducting it properly. The culture of your campus community will dictate whether or not students shake hands when introduced to other students. Since you are all more or less equals, you would not be perceived as inappropriate when extending your hand for a handshake, unless students never shake hands with other students. Since you say that sometimes students call attention to the fact that they are trying to shake hands with you, I conclude that students on your campus do shake hands, at least occasionally. If you are going to extend your hand, do it with the clear intention of shaking hands. Sometimes blind people tentatively extend a hand a bit, hoping that, if it is not taken, no one will notice that they had offered to shake. It is far better to be clear about your intention. If the other person is sighted, he or she will take your hand or risk snubbing you, which is a social gaff in itself. Another blind person may need the prompt that you have sometimes received: “Here’s my hand.” That statement may feel a bit awkward, but the situation is under your control, and you will appear confident and in charge.

Now comes the general question of the etiquette of who initiates the handshake when the two parties are not equal in rank. These rules were more rigidly enforced years ago. Generally the older person or a woman decides whether to shake hands or to nod and smile. In these egalitarian times it is pretty safe to rise if you have been sitting when the introduction is beginning and extend your hand. If your intention by a warm smile and extended hand is to shake briefly, thereby acknowledging the new acquaintance, the other person will follow suit unless his or her hands are full. This is one situation in which it is helpful to have a dog or white cane conspicuously at hand. Offering to shake hands with someone who does not have a free hand with which to shake requires an explanation if it is not to be misconstrued as inattention or peculiarity.

The way you shake hands is important to making a good impression. The dead-fish handshake really does communicate weakness and ineffectiveness. On the other hand, gripping the other person’s hand so hard that you inflict pain is overbearing and just plain rude. If your hands are naturally clammy, wipe your hand along your slacks to dry it before extending it. If you anticipate that you may be shaking hands, at a reception, for example, you might consider investing in a small hand warmer to keep in your pocket. That will keep your hand warm enough not to be unpleasant. Clasp the other person’s hand firmly, but do not squeeze. Move your hand up and down two or three inches three to six times, and then release the other person’s hand. While you are shaking, look at the other person, smile warmly, and pay attention to his or her name. Use it again soon in the brief conversation. This will help you commit it to memory and demonstrate that you were paying attention.

If you adopt these little rules and apply them, you will soon find that shaking hands is not an ordeal and that any number of little variations can take place without your needing to feel that you bungled the interaction.

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