Email etiquette: But it’s an email, not a letter!

It wasn’t that long ago that an email was a rather alien concept to us. Very few people owned a computer either at home or in the office and if we wanted to communicate with someone over any distance, we turned to the postal service or the telephone.

Just a few years on and email has now overtaken the telephone as the number one form of business communication. So much is this the case that many people complain about having to wade through a sea of email before they can even start their working day. Often half of the working day can be taken up sorting through a plethora of spam and rubbish.

How many times have you received an email that has been so badly written that you toil for ages in vain, trying to decipher the meaning or intention of its content. If only people would refrain from using text speak and poor grammar in their emails and just stick to some basic rules.

  • Ensure your emails are appropriate to the intended recipient. If your email is intended for friends, family or colleagues it is ok to use abbreviations in the email, but if you’re communicating with an external customer, you should follow the standard writing protocols you would follow if you were writing a letter. Remember, your email message will reflect on you and the company you own or work for, so stick to traditional spelling, grammar, and punctuation throughout the message.
  • Keep to the correct use of upper and lower case letters throughout. Research has shown that an awful lot of people find it very difficult to accurately read a block of text that is made up of all upper case letters. Sometimes senders try to emphasize a sentence or point by employing block capitals, this can be misconstrued by the recipient as aggressive or even dictatorial. Having said that, if you don’t use capitals at the start of a sentence or for peoples names, the email can look like it was written by someone who is very lazy. If you need to emphasise a point within the body of text it is preferable to use asterisks or bold formatting at the relevant points. Also try to avoid using a rainbow of colours and pictures in your message, because not every email program can display them.
  • Try to keep your emails brief and to the point. Even though your writing style should be grammatically correct, it doesn’t mean that it has to be long and drawn out affair. Ploughing through an email that is twice as long as it needs to be is an arduous task. Try to concentrate on one subject per email if at all possible.
  • Use the blind copy and courtesy copy appropriately. Try to stear clear of using BCC to keep other recipients from seeing who you originally copied in on the email; it demonstrates confidence when you CC anyone that receives a copy. Do use BCC, though, when sending the email to a large list of recipients, otherwise they will have to see a massive list of names. You also need to be careful with data protection issues as not everyone wants their email address circulated to the world and its wife!  A good rule of thumb is to only copy people who are directly concerned with the subject matter of the email.
  • Don’t use email to avoid personal contact. Just because email has overtaken its rivals as the number one communication medium, try not to overlook the value of face-to-face or voice-to-voice communication. Email certainly isn’t appropriate when sending a complex or emotional message to someone. If their is a problem that needs addressing in the office, speak to the concerned individuals personally. Avoid using emails to avoid an awkward situation or to cover up a mistake. Hopefully you wouldn’t email a family member in the same house to turn the television off and come to the table for their tea, so why do it in the same office?
  • Use the subject field correctly. Don’t just say, “Hello!” or “This is from Bernie.” Try to get together with your colleagues and agree on certain acronyms that everyone can use that will quickly identify actions for emails. You could use acronyms  like <AR> to indicate that Action is Required or <DNF> for do not forward. Even a single word such as “Long” in the subject field will let the recipient know that the message will take some time to read.
  • Remember that company email isn’t private. In law, email is considered to be the property of the company and can be retrieved, examined, and used in court if needed. You should always assume that email is not secure. In short, you should never put anything in an email that you wouldn’t put in a letter. You should also bear in mind that emails can be forwarded on to people who you may not want to see what you’ve written. You may also send something to the wrong recipient by mistake, so always keep the content of the email professional to avoid any embarrassment or legal action.
  • Be sparing with any group email. Only send a group email when it’s useful and relevant to every recipient. Use the “reply all” button only when you’re compiling results that require input from everyone on the list of recipients and only if you have something to add. People tend to get pretty cheesed off when they have to open an email that has a one or two word response from everyone in the group.
  • Be careful sending out jokes, adult themed and comical pictures. Emailing jokes can be fun and lift the mood in the office but you must remember that the time it takes to compile or read such emails is being paid for by the business owner. Also, you should be aware that what you find hilarious, others could find quite offensive. Most businesses will have policies in place regarding the downloading or viewing of adult or offensive material and will take action against anyone who breaches their code of practice.
  • Summarizing or forwarding emails. If you receive an email that needs forwarding or summarizing and it is rather long or poorly written, be careful! Don’t change the wording of the original email as you could land yourself in hot water as your version could be interpreted differently to the original. You should also ask the original sender for their permission before you share or forward their message, particularly if you have summarized or otherwise edited the content. Like any other medium, you should always give credit to the original author so as not to be accused of plagiarism.
  • Emails are frequently taken the wrong way! Many people try to be sarcastic, ironic or just plain funny in an email. Unfortunately, because you are not in the presence of the recipient, they can’t see the look on your face or hear the tone of your voice, therefore they may take offence. If you really want to use humour, you may try using a smiley or a winking smiley for a sarcastic comment, but beware! The overuse of these emoticons can come across as rather unprofessional in a business email.
  • Use a signature that includes your contact information. Having a proper signature at the bottom of your emails ensures that people know who has sent them the message. Make sure that your email signature has your contact information, including your name, position, business address, phone numbers and website URL. Have a different email signature to differentiate a business from a personal email.

Why not try using some of these suggestions as a general check list when sending or creating email. It is by no means an exhaustive list so feel free to add to it as you formulate your own companies email etiquette protocols.

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