A Crash Course in Email Etiquette
For better or worse, email is likely the most common way you communicate with most of your coworkers, and the reasons are obvious: just type what you need to say and send it to as many people as you want all at once. Ironically, though, the convenience of email has given rise to many new inconveniences. Long, bewildering threads that take longer to decrypt than they take to read and belligerent responses to messages you thought were completely harmless slow productivity and damage working relationships for the silliest of reasons. That’s why email etiquette is so important for both employees and employers to understand.
Ultimately, the cornerstone of email etiquette is empathy. Before you hit “send”, put yourself in the shoes of your reader(s) and ask yourself if you’re being clear enough or if there’s any way your message may be misunderstood regarding either content or tone. Below are a few email etiquette guidelines you should always follow when writing any kind of professional email.
Write revealing subject lines
Not that kind of revealing. But you can see how a single word choice (“revealing” over, say, “transparent”, or “clear”) can change the connotation of something. We usually watch the words we use in the body of an email, but all too often the subject line gets forgotten even though it’s the first thing your reader will see. Remember that your reader may be inundated with emails every day, and apart from flagging your message as “High Importance” (which should be done sparingly), the best way to ensure your email gets read in a timely fashion is to compose a concise subject line that refers to exactly what your email is about.
Remember: Less is more
As clichéd as this phrase has become, it was never more true until email took over the workplace. Every professional email should be to the point, not only for the reader’s convenience, but also to avoid a flurry of questions and answers. Such back-and-forths are what lead to those lengthy threads that could stump Sherlock Holmes, Dick Tracy, and Batman combined.
Watch your tone
Tone may be the most difficult yet important component of email etiquette to keep aware of. Oddly enough, being concise, as advised above, can make you sound curt rather than courteous. Tone is tough to control particularly because, in your head, you know how you intend to sound and naturally assume that your reader will hear what you hear. With face-to-face and phone conversations, voice inflections help to convey your meaning in a way the written word simply can’t. That’s why it’s best to read over every professional email you write and think about how you would read it had it been sent to you. To help ensure your emails always have a professional tone, include common gentilities, such as “Hi”, “Hello”, and “Good morning”, or, if you’re not that familiar with your reader, “Dear”. Also, always end with a “Thank you.”
However, there are things you should avoid as well. Don’t use emoticons or abbreviations, especially text message shorthand (e.g., LOL, btw, and gr8), and only use slang, sarcasm, or humour if you’re absolutely certain your reader will understand the context. If there’s even the slightest chance they won’t, don’t use it.
Use proper punctuation and formatting
How you punctuate your sentences and format your font plays a huge role in email etiquette because it also contributes to the tone of your message. Using a string of exclamation points or question marks, for instance, isn’t just bad punctuation; it can also make you come off as aggressive, condescending, or even angry. All-caps is also a no-no as it conveys shouting. If you want to emphasize something in your email, the convention is simply to bold it.
Consider whom you reply to and how
When replying to an email, especially when it’s about something important like a large project, it’s tempting to CC everyone who may be even the slightest bit involved. But doing that is no way to capture people’s attention. First, those who only have secondary or tertiary involvement may chime in on topics they’re not really responsible for, complicating the conversation and leading once again to an email thread that could give Tolstoy headaches. Second, those who aren’t as invested in the topic as you are may resent all the unnecessary emails, preferring instead to be kept in the loop only when it really matters as they are busy with other things.
That being said, the CC line isn’t the only field that’s often misused and abused. The BCC line has its purposes, but only in special circumstances. For instance, if you’re sending a newsletter to a large distribution list, you would use the BCC line to retain the privacy of your readers and to make sure each recipient doesn’t end up with a long list of emails that can actually push your content farther down the page. BCCing the boss as a means to expose something that’s bothering you about a coworker, however, is a big mistake. Anytime you BCC someone you work with, you come off as sneaky and risk losing the trust of your team. Such usage of the BCC line is sometimes called “e-tattling” and is as mature as it sounds.
Other functions to be cautious of
Email etiquette truly encapsulates all aspects of writing a professional email, including several functions many think little of. For instance, read receipts, as nice as they are to ensure someone read (or at least opened) your email, can imply distrust and end up offending the recipient.
You should also be mindful of whether your email will appear on your recipient’s screen the way you intend it to. For example, your email may include beautiful charts and graphs with a variety of font sizes and colours, but what are good are they if the people you sent them to can’t see them? Typically, most recipients will be able to see your email properly, but if you’re ever not sure, avoid such complex formatting and send succinct emails in plain text format rather than rich text or html.
Finally, there’s the oh-so unreliable email recall feature. It’s unreliable because many servers won’t allow emails to be recalled. Plus, the recipient will usually get a notice saying you’d like to recall the message. Sending a follow-up email apologizing for the error and asking the recipient to disregard the first email is preferable, particularly because recalling an email makes it look like you have something to hide.
Less email, less email etiquette to worry about
Earlier this month, Ferrari made business headlines around the world when it limited the number of recipients each employee could include in one email to just three. Try to add a fourth, and the message would be blocked. The car manufacturer found that work efficiency was suffering because email consistently flooded so many people’s inboxes that it was hard for anyone to make sense of what was important. Ferrari stressed that limiting recipients isn’t a punishment; rather, it’s a way of forcing people to think more about the messages they’re sending, thereby making it easier for everyone to get things done.
Ferrari’s bold move reinforces not only how much people have come to rely on email – even to the detriment of their own work – but also the value of old-fashioned phone calls and impromptu face-to-face meetings. If someone can at the very least hear your voice and react to it in real time (a.k.a., talking), you’re light years ahead of email technology, especially in terms of clarity and efficiency. Not to mention, you don’t have to worry about all those troublesome rules around email etiquette.