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December 2020

Do you only rarely fume over emails that are either unclear, overly lengthy or downright disrespectful? Consider yourself lucky. While American white collar workers spend an average 28% of their time on email, only a minority are adequately trained in email etiquette.

Failing to send well-written, concise and polite emails can lead to frustrations and resentment, reflect very poorly on an organization, and lead to lifelong tensions among employees that have a potential to hurt productivity and hinder efficient teamwork.

In this article, we go through the most important rules of proper email etiquette, supporting them with some eye-opening data provided by digital agencies Fractl and BuzzStream, who jointly surveyed over 1,200 people to identify the kind of emails they hate to see in their inbox.

On clarity and concision

When an email is not clear or concise enough, chances are the recipient will either misunderstand or ignore some of its content, leading to frustrations on both sides. 48% of the survey’s respondents considered that verbosity is mostly unacceptable.

As in any other form of business communications, professionals are advised to refrain from using obscure technical jargon and convoluted sentences, and instead opt for a succession of short, easy to understand sentences that are to the point.

On style and grammar

There is no reason why an email should not be grammatically correct or properly spelt. 80% of the survey’s respondents considered spelling errors and grammatical mistakes unacceptable.

Likewise, the use of abbreviations, short forms and incomplete sentences is discouraged. Not everyone understands that IMHO and AFAIK mean “In My Humble Opinion” and “As Far As I Know”. Even though our texting habits are starting to permeate our emails, professionals should not yet replace “you” with “u” and “to” with “2”, nor they should type their entire email in small case.

On replying on time in full

How many of us have been infuriated over receiving a very terse reply that only partially answers our questions, or not receiving any reply at all at a time when we badly need one?

It is good etiquette to acknowledge enquiries or requests promptly, seek clarifications whenever required, and to respond exhaustively with the appropriate level of details. Following this rule demonstrates attention, care and professionalism.

On subject lines

To boost the chances an email will be open and read, the subject line should be short and descriptive. Using all caps, or only small cases, was deemed unacceptable by 70% of the survey’s respondents. Who appreciates receiving an email with the following title: “URGENT: PLEASE REVERT ASAP”?

It is also advised to start a new thread with a new subject line, rather than reply to an earlier and unrelated conversation.

On formalities

While we certainly send many more emails every day than we would write formal letters, we should not dispense with formalities when using the medium. Indeed, a staggering 80% of the survey’s respondents considered email etiquette impacted their decision to engage with a stranger.

Professionals are well advised to make sure a recipient’s name is properly spelled. The informal “Hi” should not replace the more polite “Dear” until some level of familiarity in the relationship has been established. Addressing strangers on a first-name basis has become commonplace, but may still be considered rude, especially by more senior recipients.

When signing off, we should make sure we are consistent. The best way to address this once and for all is to incorporate the sign-off in our boilerplate signature. Thus, all our recipients will receive the same “Regards” or “Best regards”, irrespectively of their seniority and relationship with us.

Professionals are also advised not to sign with their initials, which may appear arrogant, unless when concluding an email sent to a close contact.

Finally, we should not hesitate to express in our emails our gratitude and appreciation for a job well done, or for a reply that successfully addresses all our questions or concerns.

On emotional emails

We have often been told that writing an emotional email at times of anger or frustration will likely be counterproductive, and that it is instead highly recommended to take a moment to breathe and come back to it later as cooler heads prevail.

We should always keep in mind that emails, as opposed to face-to-face communications, lack visual cues and are easily misunderstood. An attempt at humor can come across as sarcasm. Therefore, we should try to read the email again, giving its sender the benefit of the doubt. If we are still unsure about his/her intentions, we may want to ask for clarifications before sending out an aggravated reply.

Conversely, we should carefully and sparingly seek to express our emotions by way of exclamation points or emoticons. When used too often, they may negatively reflect on our character and professionalism. Over 30% of the survey’s respondents considered using emoticons unacceptable.

On accidental forwards

This happened to all of us: for good or bad reasons, one of our emails got forwarded, either by accident or willfully, to someone we would rather not have seen it.

Hence this golden rule: whenever professionals write an email, they should always pause for a second before clicking the Send button, read their draft one last time and think of the consequences if it was, say, on the media’s front page the next day.

On whom to send, forward and reply to

There is a risk when we address an email to multiple recipients that none will take the initiative to reply. Ideally, we should send an email only to the person whom we expect to take action, and c.c. those others who need to be informed.

Second, given the large number of emails that reach our inbox every day, it is also good practice to only copy those individuals for whom our email is directly relevant, and not overuse the “reply to all” button.

Third, copying another employee’s boss when we complain about his/her performance without giving him/her a chance to correct the situation shows we have in any case already escalated the issue, thus damaging prospects of future cooperation. Copying the same boss in bcc is even worse and should be avoided as such action is often doomed to be exposed.

Finally, it is safe practice to only type in the names of the email’s recipients when the draft is finalized, and to double check we are not sending our email to the wrong person.

On formatting: Why it is rarely appropriate

Formatting our email to some extent may be appropriate when we are replying to a list of questions (“see my answers in blue”) or when we feel the need to clearly separate distinct sections.

In most other cases, changing the font type, font size, or color of certain words or sentences to stress a specific point may cause the recipient to wonder what was our intention: Were we upset? Do we imply the recipient is unable to read properly? The practice may often appear arrogant or pushy, and the survey revealed that 70% and over 60% of respondents considered that changing the font size, or using different font colors, respectively, was unacceptable.

Likewise, typing certain portions of text in all caps and using multiple exclamation or question marks (???) is likely to make us look condescending and rude. Instead, if we need to put emphasis, we are advised to use the most appropriate words, e.g. “This issue is of critical importance to us”, rather than “This issue is IMPORTANT to us”.

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What’s next?

When it comes to email etiquette, most of yesterday’s rules and conventions still apply. While most organizations provide their staff with detailed IT guidelines and policies, proper email etiquette is rarely taught and even more rarely followed, which can be a source of frustrations and lead to a decline in productivity. If we were to list the five most important principles underlying email etiquette, they would be:

1. Think how you would feel if your email became public news.

2. Never succumb to your emotions.

3. Always be courteous, polite and appreciative.

4. Communicate clearly, concisely and exhaustively.

5. Type, structure and format your email as if it were a formal correspondence on your company’s letterhead.