Understanding Etiquette Part Four: Email Etiquette

Welcome back to Understanding Etiquette – the series where we get to grips with the customary codes of polite behavior, and how to abide by them.

In the last edition of this series, we talked about online etiquette, and the rules to abide by in the digital realm. Today, we’re getting to grips with the do’s and don’ts of writing an email – particularly in the business world.

Email’s been a mainstay in business for over 20 years now, but you’d be amazed by how many people still haven’t grasped the right way to write an electronic message to a colleague or superior.

If you’re in that camp though, fear not. That’s what this guide is for! Let’s dive in.

Remember who the message is for

In real life, you talk to different people in different ways. You’re not going to address your college buddies the same way as you would your boss, for example. Same applies with e-mail.

Before you start writing your message, think about who the message is for and let that guide the content. Writing to an old friend, for example, and a casual “hey,” “hi” or “yo” is probably a perfectly way to start the message. If you’re writing to a colleague, on the other hand, that won’t fly – a more formal “Hello” or “Dear…” would be much more appropriate.

Same goes with the body of the message. If you’re writing in a professional context, then slang, colloquialisms and text-speak are a no-go zone. The same goes for excess capitalization and exclamation point usage. Good grammar and proper English are an absolute must. They make you look like a professional, and they make the meaning of your message much clearer for the recipient.

Speaking of which…

Proofread it

Never hit the send key the instant you’ve finished your email. You might be making an etiquette faux pas if you do.

Proofreading an email might seem like a waste of time. “Who cares about a couple of teensy grammatical mistakes in the scheme of things, right?”

As it happens, professionals care. An email full of spelling mistakes and bad grammar makes the writer look sloppy, careless, even badly educated. That’s not a good impression to leave, especially if this is the first correspondence you’re having with a person.

It’s not just mistakes you’re looking for when proofreading though. You need to make sure that your email makes sense. Are you conveying your meaning clearly and succinctly? Or will the reader need a Rosetta stone to decipher your run-on sentences and strange verb choices?

Spending those extra few minutes to fine tune your message can really make a difference to the reader, so don’t be afraid to put the time in.

The subject heading matters

Once again, this is about clarity of communication. Busy professionals often get hundreds of emails sent to their inbox a day. If you want to make sure your message gets noticed, it’s important that you communicate the subject of it clearly.

From an etiquette perspective, doing this is beneficial to the reader because it makes their life easier. They know exactly what that email refers to, and can file it until the appropriate time in their day to open it and respond to it.

Subject lines like “Hey [INSERT NAME HERE]” or “Yo!” give the impression that the correspondence isn’t serious. Those are the emails that tend to be forgotten about and get lost in inbox purgatory. A heading like “3rd Quarter Report Attached,” on the other hand, leaves no doubt as to the content of the email. It makes life easier for the recipient, and means that your message is much more likely to get noticed.

Use humor with caution

In a face-to-face encounter, a well-timed joke or witty observation can be the perfect icebreaker. With that in mind, it might seem logical to enliven your emails with a little humor.

But, you need to approach humor with caution in written correspondences. Why? Because it’s easier for your meaning to be misconstrued in writing.

When we tell a joke in person, the recipient has many ways to read our meaning; our words, the tone of our voice, our posture, our facial expression. In an email, however, it’s just the words, and, without those other signifiers, we run the risk of being misinterpreted.

What you thought was a warm and witty response might be read as cold and sarcastic, and could leave a bad impression with the reader.

That’s not to say that humor is a complete no-go. If you already have an established rapport with someone, a well-deployed written joke might work. But, when contacting someone you don’t have an existing relationship with, it’s a good idea to avoid humor altogether.

Respond to every message

(Every legitimate email that is – we’re not expecting you to get back to spammers!)

The flip side of writing good emails is responding to them in a timely and polite manner.

You probably know how frustrating it is when people don’t get back to enquiries, need following up or take an obnoxiously long time to respond to a message. Don’t be that guy!

Respond to every message as quickly and courteously as you can, even if it’s just a brief message to acknowledge you’ve seen the email. You might not have an answer straight away, that’s fine. But making sure the recipient knows you’ve seen their message and will eventually have a response for them is a polite way of handling the situation. (On a related note, make sure that you actually respond to that enquiry – don’t say you will and then forget about it!)

This is one caveat to all this, however. We’re not expecting you to get back to enquiries over the weekend or outside of your office hours. Etiquette works both ways. People shouldn’t be contacting you during these times in the first place, and neither should you be responding to them. If you get an email on Saturday evening, your response can wait until Monday morning.

Avoid angry emails

We made this point in the online etiquette article last week, but it bears repeating here.

There are times when a message will appear in your inbox that will really grind your gears. It happens. Sometimes people, whether intentionally or not, will rub you up the wrong way. But don’t, whatever you do, fire off a venomous response in a fit of rage. You will regret it and you will come across as the bad guy, even if they started it.

If you can’t hold off writing that angry response, then here’s the solution. Draft it in a Word document (NOT your mail client – you don’t want to accidentally send it!), then do something to take your mind off it for an hour or two. Once you’ve gotten some headspace, check the email draft again. You’ll likely realize the faux par you were about to make and either

  1. redraft it to soften the content
  2. write something else altogether

Either way, you’ll save yourself a major headache by taking a step back.

That’s it for this edition. Make sure you join us next time, when we’ll be talking moving outside of the business realm, and looking at personal e-mails for serious occasions.