Follow these email etiquette tips in order to write more effective email.
The improvised back-and-forth pattern we are comfortable with in social media conversations differs greatly from the pre-planned, more self-contained messages most professionals expect in the workplace.
If you are planning an outing with friends, you expect multiple rapid exchanges asking for clarification and providing corrections on the fly. Since you are usually texting somebody you already know well, about a shared interest, you don’t need to provide much context.
Most professionals do not want to engage in a leisurely back-and-forth in order to get their work done. They want to clear this item from their inbox, perhaps by passing it to an assistant or kicking it upstream, without having to ask the sender “I dunno, what do you think?” or “What did you mean by that emoji?”
Originally written by Jessica Bauer in 2000; expanded and maintained by Dennis G. Jerz
1. Write a meaningful subject line.
Before you hit “send,” take a moment to write a subject line that accurately describes the content, giving your reader a concrete reason to open your message. A vague or blank subject line is a missed opportunity to inform or persuade your reader.
Remember — your message is not the only one in your recipient’s mailbox. A clear subject line will help a busy professional to decide that your email is worthwhile.
|A blank subject line suggests that your name in the “From” line is all your recipient should need in order to make you message a top priority. That could come across as arrogant, or at the very least, thoughtless. A well-chosen subject line is an important opportunity to inform and persuade your reader.|
|Subject: “Important! Read Immediately!!“|
|Rather than brashly announcing that the secret contents of your mystery message are inexplicably important…|
|Subject: “All Cars in the Lower Lot Will Be Towed in 1 Hour.”|
|…write a functional subject line that actually conveys the important idea.|
|Subject: “Quick question.“|
|If the question is quick, why not just ask it in the subject line? This subject line is hardly useful.|
|Subject: “Follow-up about Friday“|
|Fractionally better — provided that the recipient remembers why a follow-up was necessary.|
|Subject: “That file you requested.“|
|Many email users get scads of virus-laden spam with vague titles like this. The more specific you are, the more likely your recipient’s spam-blocker will let your message through.|
|Subject: “10 confirmed for Friday… will we need a larger room?“|
|Upon reading this revised, informative subject line, the recipient immediately starts thinking about the size of the room, not about whether it will be worth it to open the email.|
2. Keep the message focused.
Why are you writing? Are you responding to a request? Apologizing for an error on your part? Asking for the recipient to take some action for you?
- Purpose: Any textbook on business and professional writing will include examples of complaint and adjustment letters, proposal letters, progress reports, application letters, and so forth.
- Directness: You probably don’t need to open with “Dear Ms. Jones,” engage in personal chit-chat, and close with “Yours Truly.” (If you really want to be that formal, send a letter on paper instead.)
- Organization: Readers will often get partway through a complex message, hit “reply” as soon as they have something to contribute, and forget to read the rest. That’s human nature.
- Number your points in more complex message. (Start with a clear statement of how many parts there are to your message.)
- Split unrelated points into separate, purposeful emails.
- If you send all your employees a message that only relates to some of them, a lot of people will waste time reading the whole thing, in order to determine whether any part of it applies to them.
- Other people will give up as soon as they find any detail that does not apply to them. (Again, this is human nature.)
- Politeness: Please and thank-you are still important, but wordiness wastes your reader’s time (which is rude).
Indirect and wasteful: “Dearest Arnold: I would be very much obliged if, at your earliest convenience, you could send me the current password for the website. I look forward to your response. Have a nice day! Yours Truly, Philomena.” Blunt to the point of rudeness: “Need the password for the website.” If you get a message like this, you might assume the sender trusts you and really needs your help; however, if you send a message like this, you might appear needy and panicky. Is that how you want to come across? Think about it. Urgent, yet polite: “Site is down, but I can’t troubleshoot without the new password. Do you know it?”
To help your reader focus on your message: keep your text readable.
- Proofread, especially when your message asks your recipient to do work for you. All-caps comes across as shouting, and no-caps makes you look like a lazy teenager. Regardless of your intention, people will respond accordingly.
- If you are in middle school, a gushing statement “thx 4 ur help 2day ur gr8!″ may make a busy professional smile — or shudder.
- Often, the sweetness of the gesture won’t be enough. u want ur prof r ur boss 2 think u cant spl? LOL 😉
- Write short paragraphs, separated by blank lines. Most people find unbroken blocks of text boring, or even intimidating. Take the time to format your message for the ease of your reader.
- Avoid fancy typefaces. Don’t depend upon bold font or large size to add nuances. Your recipient’s email reader may not have all the features that yours does. In a pinch, use asterisks to show *emphasis*.
3. Avoid attachments
Rather than forcing you reader to download an attachment and open it in a separate program, you will probably get faster results if you just copy-paste the most important part of the document into the body of your message.
|To: All 1000 Employees
From: Eager Edgar
Subject: A helpful book everyone should read
Hello, everyone. I’ve attached a PDF that I think you’ll all find very useful. This is the third time I sent it the file — the version I sent yesterday had a typo on page 207, so I’ve sent the whole thing again. Since some of you noted that the large file size makes it a bit awkward, I’ve also attached each chapter as a separate document. Let me know what you think!Attachments:
|Okay, raise your hands… how many of us would delete the above message immediately, without looking at *any* of those attachments?|
|To: Bessie Professional
From: Morris Ponsybil
Subject: Email tips — a subject for an office workshop?
Bessie, I came across some tips on streamlining professional communications. Has anyone volunteered to present at the office workshop next month? Let me know if you’d like me to run a little seminar (20 minutes?) on using email effectively. Below, I’ll paste the table of contents. I’ll send you the whole thing as a PDF if you want it.Table of Contents
Recognize that attachments
- consume bandwidth (do you want your recipient to ignore your request so as to avoid paying for a mobile download?)
- can carry viruses
- don’t always translate correctly for people who read their email on portable devices.
- may require your recipient to have certain software installed (such as Microsoft Publisher or Apple’s Pages)
4. Identify yourself clearly.
If you telephoned someone outside your closest circle, someone who probably wouldn’t recognize your voice, you would probably say something like “Hello, Ms. Wordsworth, this is Sally Griffin.” A formal “Dear Ms. Wordsworth” salutation is not necessary for routine workplace communication.
When we send text messages to our friends, we expect a lot of back-and-forth. But professionals who use email don’t enjoy getting a cryptic message from an email address they don’t recognize.
While a routine email does not require a formal salutation such as “Dear Ms. Wordsworth,” ask yourself whether the person you are writing knows you well enough to recognize your email address.
|To: Professor Blinderson
Subject: [Blank]Yo goin 2 miss class whats the homework
|Professor Blinderson will probably reply, “Please let me know your name and which class you’re in, so that I can respond meaningfully. I don’t recognize the address FuZzYkItTy2000@hotmail.com.”|
| To: Professor Blinderson
Subject: EL227 Absence, Oct 10Hello, Prof. Blinderson. This is Morris Ponsybil, from EL227 section 2.This morning, I just found out that the curling team has advanced to the playoffs, so I’m going to be out of town on the 10th.According to the syllabus, it looks like I will miss a paper workshop and the discussion of Chapter 10. May I email you my Chapter 10 discussion questions before I leave town? And could I come to your office hour at 2pm on the 12th, in order to discuss the paper? I’ve asked Cheryl Jones to take notes for me.Thank you very much. I’ll see you in class tomorrow.
|If you are asking the other person to do you a favor, providing the right information will give him or her a good reason to decide in your favor. In this case, Morris Ponsybil shows his professor he cares enough about the class to propose a solution to the problem his absence will cause.|
When contacting someone cold, be polite and brief. If you are asking for a stranger to do something for you for free, be prepared to hear nothing in response.
Even if you already have a connection with the person you are contacting, a little context is helpful. Every fall, I get emails from “firstname.lastname@example.org” or “FuZzYkItTy2000@hotmail.com” who ask a question about “class” and don’t sign their real names.
If you are following up on a face-to-face contact, you might appear too timid if you assume your recipient doesn’t remember you; but you can drop casual hints to jog their memory: “I enjoyed talking with you about usability testing in the elevator the other day.”
While formal phrases such as “Dear Professor Sneedlewood” and “Sincerely Yours,” are unnecessary in email, when contacting someone outside your own organization, you should write a signature line that includes your full name and at least a link to a blog or online profile page (something that does not require your recipient to log in first).
5. Be kind. Don’t flame.
Think before you click “Send.”
If you find yourself writing in anger, save a draft, go get a cup of coffee, and imagine that tomorrow morning someone has taped your email outside your door. Would your associates and friends be shocked by your language or attitude?
Or would they be impressed by how you kept your cool, how you ignored the bait when your correspondent stooped to personal attacks, and how you carefully explained your position (or admitted your error, or asked for a reconsideration, etc.)>
Will you have to work with this person for several months? Do you want a copy of your bitter screed to surface years from now, when you want a letter of recommendation?
|@!$% &*@!! &(*!|
|Go ahead… write it, revise it, liven it up with traditional Lebanese curses, print it out, throw darts on it, and scribble on it with crayon. Do whatever you need in order to get it out of your system. Just don’t hit “Send” while you’re still angry.|
| From: Clair Haddad
To: Ann O. Ying
Subject: Re: Ongoing Problems with ProjectI’m not sure how to respond, since last week you told Sue that you didn’t need any extra training, so I cancelled Wednesday’s workshop. I can CC Sue in on this thread if you like, since she’s the one who will have to approve the budget if we reschedule it. Meanwhile, I can loan you my copies of the manual, or we can look into shifting the work to someone else. Let me know what you’d like me to do next.—Original Message –
From: Ann O. Ying
I tried all morning to get in touch with you. Couldn’t you find a few minutes in between meetings to check your messages? I’m having a rough time on this project, and I’m sorry if this is last-minute, but I’ve never done this before and I think the least you could do is take some time to explain it again.
|If your recipient has just lambasted you with an angry message, rather than reply with a point-by-point rebuttal, you can always respond with a brief note like this, which
If you are asking someone else to do work for you, take the time to make your message look professional.
While your spell checker won’t catch every mistake, at the very least it will catch a few typos. If you are sending a message that will be read by someone higher up on the chain of command (a superior or professor, for instance), or if you’re about to mass-mail dozens or thousands of people, take an extra minute or two before you hit “send”. Show a draft to a close associate, in order to see whether it actually makes sense.
7. Don’t assume privacy
A good motto: praise in public, and criticize in private. Don’t send anything over email that you wouldn’t want posted — with your name attached — in the break room.
Email is not secure. Just as random pedestrians could reach into a physical mailbox and intercept envelopes, a curious hacker, a malicious criminal, and your IT department can probably read any and all email messages in your work account.
If you stretch the truth in an email (downplaying a problem, leaving out an important detail, etc.), you’re creating a written record that your recipient can (and will) use to determine whether
- you are uninformed about the truth
- you are informed but deliberately misrepresenting the truth
- your confused and conflicting emails mean you aren’t a reliable source for determining the truth
8. Distinguish between formal and informal situations.
When you are writing to a friend or a close colleague, it is OK to use “smilies” 🙂 , abbreviations (IIRC for “if I recall correctly”, LOL for “laughing out loud,” etc.) and nonstandard punctuation and spelling (like that found in instant messaging or chat rooms).
These linguistic shortcuts are generally signs of friendly intimacy, like sharing cold pizza with a family friend. If you tried to share that same cold pizza with a first date, or a visiting dignitary, you would give off the impression that you did not really care about the meeting. By the same token, don’t use informal language when your reader expects a more formal approach.
Always know the situation, and write accordingly.
9. Respond Promptly.
If you want to appear professional and courteous, make yourself available to your online correspondents. Even if your reply is, “Sorry, I’m too busy to help you now,” at least your correspondent won’t be waiting in vain for your reply.
10. Show Respect and Restraint
Many a flame war has been started by someone who hit “reply all” instead of “reply.”
While most people know that email is not private, it is good form to ask the sender before forwarding a personal message. If someone emails you a request, it is perfectly acceptable to forward the request to a person who can help — but forwarding a message in order to ridicule the sender is tacky.
Use BCC instead of CC when sending sensitive information to large groups. (For example, a professor sending a bulk message to students who are in danger of failing, or an employer telling unsuccessful applicants that a position is no longer open.) The name of everyone in the CC list goes out with the message, but the names of people on the BCC list (“blind carbon copy”) are hidden. Put your own name in the “To” box if your mail editor doesn’t like the blank space.
Be tolerant of other people’s etiquette blunders. If you think you’ve been insulted, quote the line back to your sender and add a neutral comment such as, “I’m not sure how to interpret this… could you elaborate?”
References & Further Reading
- Alsop, Stewart. “My Rules of Polite Digital Communication.” Fortune. 142.2 (10 July 2000): p 76. Online. Academic Search Elite. 9 October 2000.
- Cronin, Jennifer. “Netiquette, schmetiquette.” Des Moines Business Record 16.24 (12 June 2000): p 11. Online. MasterFILE Premier. 9 October 2000.
- “Email Etiquette.” I Will Follow Services. 1997. <http://www.iwillfollow.com/emailetiquette.html>. 9 October 2000.
- Nucifora, Alf. “Use etiquette when messaging via email.” Memphis Business Journal 21.51 (14 April 2000): p23. Online. MasterFILE Premier. 9 October 2000.
- Thorton, Sam. “Rules and Regulations: Email Etiquette.” 29 April 1998. <http://www.lse.ac.uk/Depts/ITS/rules/email.htm>. 9 October