Email Etiquette: The 5 Important Things We Often Forget

Current Mood:  Very awake for someone who was up at 6 AM on a Saturday.

Current Song: Crazy by Gnarls Barkley.


Credit: Dilbert.com

Lately, I have been dealing with a lot of emails of varying tones and quality – some of which have pretty much made it necessary for me to write this post.  Email is the most often used form of communication in our digital world today.  We email practically everyone on a regular basis, and for something we do this often, there are rules of engagement.  Now there are tons of website and blogs out there that go into the details of email etiquette (roughly about 8 million, according to a Google search I just did).  Here are 5 that I think are probably the most important to heed:

1. Watch your tone.  Given the complete lack of speech nuances, facial expressions and body language, it is important to watch your tone.  Language says a lot about how you are feeling.  Now, we all have bad days and can be a bit short on email (guilty as charged).  If you’re feeling overwhelmed, frustrated or angry, don’t reply to an email that has brought you to that point.  You’ll only manage to convey how angry you are.  If it’s something worth getting angry about, it’s best to pick up the phone.  Saying words like “huh?” can come across as crass and rude.  Remember, you only have words to convey a range of different things; use them wisely.

2. DON’T USE CAPITALS IN EMAILS!  This is probably one of my biggest pet peeves.  Unless it’s for exciting news, i.e. OH MY GOD, I WON THE LOTTERY or THAT WAS THE BEST FIRST DATE, EVER! or CAN YOU BELIEVE I’M GOING TO BE ON THE OPRAH SHOW?, that’s fine.  You’ll probably get a response in kind.  If you want to highlight something, or make a point use, italics, bold, or underline   It’s less akin to yelling at someone in person.  If you wouldn’t yell it out in person, don’t yell it out on email.

3. Don’t forget your manners – Say Please and Thank You.  We often get to the point of familiarity with people over email, where we start replying in short phrases and leave the greetings and niceties at the door.  It’s fine if I’m talking to my best friend or my sister, that I might do this.  However, please please don’t forget to say Please and Thank you.  We say it all the time in person (right?).   Email should be no different.  Show your appreciation and be polite.  Better yet, drop someone a thank you note when they help you out in a big way.  It keeps otherwise impersonal forms of communication warm and humanly.

4. Ask Your Questions at the End.  We go through emails everyday at an unprecedented rate.  Sometimes it goes from reading right into the bin.  Have you got something important to ask?  Ask it at the end.  If you do, it’s the last thing that will be on my mind when I respond to you.  Asking questions at the beginning or the middle of an email will result in people forgetting by the time they get to the end of the message.  I’ve found that the most effective thing to do is to ask at the end of the message.  You’ll notice that it’s the first thing addressed in your reply.

5. Life is Short.  Stop Rambling.   I can’t stand it when emails go on forever.  If it’s a really compelling story about, say, how you just got back from an amazing spiritual quest at the foot of the Himalayas or a recipe for an amazing chocolate cake to end all of mankind, then please, go right ahead.  If you’re “thinking out loud” on email, spare us all, please.  As an editor, if I write a long email, I take a few moments to edit through it because I know I’ve probably made it longer than it needs to be.  If you want to have a discussion, talk through the logic of a problem, or express something, pick up the phone.  Don’t write a long email.  I probably won’t read it.

Those are my tips for awesome email etiquette.  I’m sure there are tons more out there.  Have you got any to share?

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18 thoughts on “Email Etiquette: The 5 Important Things We Often Forget

  1. Great post Mehnaz!
    Here’s another one: be polite but get to the point! Don’t start emails with pointless questions (How’s school? How’s life?) if your purpose is to ask for a favour. It cheapens the whole thing. If you’re really interested in how the person is it’s better to express it afterward.

    • Good Point! I tend to put “Giant Hairy Favour” or something like that in the subject line, just so the victim has been primed. On the flipside saying something like, “hey can you watch my kids for the next week, okay, thanks” is perhaps too direct, and we need to soften the blow.

      • Agreed. :) I’m all for a polite “How are you?” to soften the blow. It’s when I’m inundated by three or four such questions before the key point that the message feels less genuine…

  2. I recently sent an email to Jenny Blake in which I was SO excited I came around full circle on the caps lock thing that I sent the ENTIRE email in lower-case.

    Actually it was quite irritating…didn’t like it one bit. But where do you go when you are so excited that even caps lock isn’t enough?! :)

    • Oh that’s quite the pickle! I don’t know where you’d go from there…perhaps different coloured texts? a skype call to allow for exuberant amounts of screaming….I hope you didn’t explode :)

    • I like to use them in personal emails (sparingly), but not in business correspondence. It’s far too unprofessional, unless you’re writing to a colleague who might be a friend…but still, it’s wise to use discretion

  3. I suggest we add another item to this list. It is NOT OK in professional email correspondance to forgo proper salutations. I can’t tell you how many times I receive email responses from journalists or suppliers that have no hello, dear, or even hi, and no closing greeting other than their default signature. When did this become acceptable?

    • Yes, I never did understand that one, Lindsey. We don’t generally launch into conversation in real life without some kind of greeting. Not sure why it’s okay on email.

  4. How about using BCC? So often, I get emails with a huge list of recipients. Then one of those recipients hits “reply all”, then a huge email storm can ensue, because others on the list can feel compelled to also “reply all”.

    In addition, using BCC will prevent email addresses from being distributed. That, in and of itself, is rude.

  5. I think much of what you said can be traced to the sender’s improper choice of medium. The best example I can think of is a topic that will require multiple email exchanges or one where decisions and/or choices still need to be made. To spend two days exchanging a dozen emails to resolve something that a two minute phone call could have easily handled is ridiculous.

  6. It’s not really rude, but one of my pet peeves is reading email from people who put more than one punctuation mark at the end of their sentences. For instance, a giant string of question marks following a question, or exclamation points at the end of an exclamation.

    I’ll also second the “where did salutations and closings go” sentiment.

    • I agree with this one too. I mean, it doesn’t make the point any more salient if you throw in half a dozen exclamation points at the end of a sentiment. If it’s that exciting, again, pick up the phone.
      Thanks for commenting!

  7. Pingback: How Not To Be Annoying And Incompetent At E-mail : Real-Time Finance

  8. My pet peeve is people who do not answer the question I asked in the email. “Should I send the package via UPS or Fed Ex?” should not be answered by “Yes”.
    I also dislike when people reply to my emails with a phone call. Generally, I need the email as backup – otherwise I will just phone the person.

  9. An item on email attachments would be interesting; a colleague of mine recently got a testy reply and rejection in response to an email she sent out that carried a 5MB attachment.

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