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Email: you’re doing it wrong

Email etiquette seems like common sense.

It’s not.

I know this because most everyone I know fails at email etiquette constantly, myself included1.

Simply being aware of basic email etiquette can create and maintain good impressions with the people you are communicating with. Email is obviously not going away anytime soon, so it’s important to understand how to use it effectively.

  1. Should you send an email? This is the main tenet of email etiquette. Email is a lot like high school homework. Teachers never communicate about how much homework they assign, which results in students getting overloaded. You don’t know how much email someone is receiving, and your one email could be adding to an already overwhelming amount. If you can talk in person, do that. If you can make a call, do that. Know what medium works best for the message you need to communicate.
  2. Keep your emails short. People receive a lot of email. Writing lengthy emails creates an awkward obligation. People feel like they need to respond and match the length. You’re not trying to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. You’re trying to find out what time you’re meeting at Chipotle.
  3. Keep your emails focused. Get to the point immediately. This becomes increasingly true the more important the person is. I recently emailed a friend recommending another friend of mine for a job. My opening lines were, “Hey, Mike! I want to recommend my friend Jim to you for the architecture program you’re starting.” BAM! Bloating the opening lines of an email with, “How’s the wife? How are the kids?” is unnecessary and a waste of everyone’s time2.
  4. Make use of the subject line. “What do you think?” is a terrible subject line. It doesn’t tell anyone anything and all but guarantees that they’ll never be able to find that email once it’s out of their inbox. I sometimes treat subject lines as a place to tag the email with important search words. “Boardroom dinner article from steps to” is understandable, descriptive, and searchable.
  5. Acknowledge that you’ve received an email. If someone sends you a time-sensitive email, respond immediately. Even if someone sends an email that doesn’t require a full-out written response—like an interesting article or funny video—it’s never a bad idea to respond and say, “Thanks!” or “I’ll check this out.” Acknowledgment like this lets people know that you respect communication with them. And if an important email requires a longer response that you won’t be able to write for a while, it’s best to let them know: “Hey, got your email. I’m out right now, but will respond later tonight.”
  6. Answer all questions. I often receive email responses addressing 1 of my 3 questions. It’s frustrating and awkward, since now I have to email you back and ask you the question again. I often open a new window and write my response email as I’m reading the other person’s original email line by line to ensure I don’t miss anything.
  7. Don’t “reply all” unless everyone needs to know what you’re saying. Sidebar conversations that don’t involve everyone in an email thread is especially frustrating. Just start a new email. Or IM them. Or call them. Something. When I’m getting unnecessary emails constantly, it makes it harder to realize when I’ve received an important one.
  8. Don’t forward spam or chain letters. I’ve covered this before. Either they’re stupid and unfunny, or I saw it years ago.
  9. Tone is important. Unfortunately, when it comes to email, your brain has to work harder than zero. Because you can’t hear inflection in text, it’s incredibly easy to misinterpret something. Sarcasm hasn’t quite yet evolved in email. It mostly comes off rude. I sometimes even feel like I’m being rude if I’m not putting an exclamation point at the end of my sentences! This all leads back to “Should you send an email?” If so, make sure you’re being straightforward and making an effort to communicate clearly.
  10. Re-read your email before sending. The more important the email, the more times I read it over. Cut out repetitive wording. Small words and short sentences work wonders.

There are, of course, exceptions to these suggestions. Often times a long email must be sent out to get everyone on the same page. And occasionally I’ll forward a chain letter to a friend of mine because it’s so bad.

If you learn one thing about email etiquette, it’s know your audience and don’t waste their time.

  1. Not really. I just threw that in there to seem humble. []
  2. Especially if Mike doesn’t have a wife or kids. []
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