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When I decided to write a blog about email etiquette, I was surprised to find that every single friend, associate, and family member I spoke with had an opinion to offer about at least one aspect of emailing. 

It makes sense: no matter your profession, there’s a high chance you’ll need to deal with a daily load of emails at work, especially with people you’ve never met in person, and often with customers.  Unlike a phone call or a face-to-face meeting, email forces you to rely solely on written words, which makes it pretty tricky business. 

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The end goal of email is to communicate your point clearly and correctly, while still sounding amicable and competent.  Too often, though, the way we use our words make it far too easy to misread tone, lose emotion, or overanalyze nuance.  We’re communicating by email as a large part of our livelihood, but did anyone ever teach us how to, and more importantly, how NOT to write a professional email?

If it’s something we do all day, every day, why are some of us still not great at it?  Admit it, when was the last time you rolled your eyes after reading an email?  Has your blood pressure spiked just reading the subject line of an email in your inbox?  Have you ever written an email only to revise it dozens of times over the course of 30 minutes? 

While I’ve certainly discovered that people disagree on most aspects of professional email, I’m here to pass along some helpful notes and tell you what irks recipients of our emails, what they deem appropriate, and offer some best practices and better approaches to try out.  Enjoy, and please feel free to comment.

ALL CAPS

Don’t use all capital letters unless it’s an acronym or you absolutely have to emphasize a date, time, or location.  It tends to come across as condescending, and no one is sure if you’re yelling at them or not.  MAKE SENSE TO YOU?  

Addressing the Reader

As a rule—and I am guilty of not doing this—it is best to address your email recipient by name at the beginning of an email, and use a closing remark at the end before your name.  This personalizes and formalizes your message.  Some example closings before your signature are: Best, Thank you, Regards, Fondly, or Have a great day.  This especially applies when you’re corresponding with a manager or customer, and want to come off as friendly and accommodating. 

Smiles and Exclamations!!!

Everyone I spoke with was 50/50 concerning the use of smiley faces and exclamation points.  My opinion is, know your audience.  Sure, you don’t want to get secretly chastised for throwing adorable faces at the end of each sentence, but in a more informal email, I say why not.  It might even lighten the mood on a sensitive subject. 

Exclamation points, while mildly cutesy, also tend to soften your tone.  While you don’t want to look like you’re the most excitable person alive as you scream every sentence, it’s okay to show a little enthusiasm about a project or idea.

Watch Out for Boldness

And I’m not talking about font choices here.  Has it been a rough day?  Did someone buy decaf on accident?  Are you about to compose and send your email feeling feisty or confrontational?  You might want to backspace.  Whatever your mood, you never want to use an email as your shield.  If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, do not put it in an email.  This is the quickest way to lose the respect of your coworkers and employees.  

If need be, write the email with the ‘To’ space blank, walk the block, look at some dog memes, and come back to it with fresh eyes.  (Seriously, if you’re not following worldofcutepets on Instagram, I’m not sure how you’re getting through the day.)

Privacy

This may seem obvious, but if it is sent in an email, it exists somewhere.  Choose your words carefully.  This is especially applicable at work.  Confidential information should be treated as such, so know when to pick up the phone versus when it’s okay to just send a quick message.  Additionally, if you are relaying bad news, be courteous enough not to blast somebody in an email with the entire team on the thread.  Approach them individually first. 

CC and BCC

Be sure that you are cc’ing—carbon copying—only when necessary, and that you are including the right people so as not to waste the time of others.  Your intention in cc’ing should be to inform the appropriate people courteously.  Cc’ing should not be used to call someone out.  Additionally, if you are not looking to escalate an issue, cc’ing half of your company, customers, and anyone who ever touched the project will make you look pretty foolish.  Does your CEO have time to hear about your personal gripes or a snack thief in the breakroom?  Hmmm, probably not.  

I would also say to beware of bcc’ing—blind carbon copying.  Can you use it to send group emails without everyone’s email being visible?  Sure thing!  But if you’re trying to play it sneaky and go behind someone’s back at work, what’s your real intent there?  Secretly bcc’ing people on emails is rarely going to help you professionally.

Reply and Reply All

Another obvious one, but if you don’t already know it, for the love of every blown up inbox ever, please learn the difference.  The two buttons are dangerously close, so be sure to check and recheck recipients before you send.  The same goes for email threads.  

One. Word. Responses.

Sure you may be on your phone about to go through airport security and you’re just acknowledging receipt of an email, but one-word responses often sound brisk, angry, and may even come across as rude.  Try a 'That sounds good,' or 'Let’s recap tomorrow.'  If you have text predictor, add in some less curt responses. 

Email Length

We use email to save time and send thoughts quickly.  Even more hated than the one-word email is the biggest email peeve of them all: the loquacious novella email.  Your preternatural aptitude as a punctilious wordsmith may catapult you to a Pulitzer, but when it comes to the workplace, save the prose for your journal.  No one has time to read and reread your five-paragraph email to learn there was a change in procedure or to summarize a ten-minute conference call.  Make your point, make it clear, and attempt to make it quick.  Hone in on what the recipient needs to know from you.

Oddly, it’s usually more difficult to write less, isn’t it?  Here’s a tip: Write out key points you want to touch on in just a few words, and flesh those out with complete sentences.  For just about anything I write, I use the standard of Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.  If you can answer those questions as succinctly as possible, you will be an email superhero to your peers.

Readability: Break it Up, Break it Down 

This isn’t high school English, so one complete sentence in an email makes a perfectly good paragraph if it is informing your reader fully and making your point.  As such, you will not be insulting your reader if you use bullet points to separate topics.  The same applies to breaking down key points through paragraphing; when you ramble for 20 sentences, you are taking up someone’s time, and dense block emails are downright rude to the reader.  Our eyes naturally move about the page, so if the main point of your email is a date and time, bold it.  If you are referencing a certain project, set if off with quotes. 

And whatever you do, no email backgrounds, no script, and no colorful or tiny fonts.  Plain, black, 12-point font in either Times New Roman or a basic sans-serif is all your reader wants to see.   

Urgency

If it’s urgent, indicate so.  It’s more than irritating when someone will send you an email and five minutes later call and ask, ‘Did you get my email?!’  If it’s that time sensitive, pick up the phone first. 

 Your words matter, so choose good ones!

Ellipses

My grammar instructor taught me to use an ellipsis only for indicating a speaker who is trailing off.  As a professional writing an email, you want to sound confident in what you’re saying.  When you write an email riddled with ellipses, often the reader doesn’t know how to take it, as it sounds uncertain or like a stream of consciousness.  This is especially true if that ellipsis is at the end of a sentence. 

Example:

A) I’m looking forward to our meeting. (That’s straightforward, right?)
B) I’m looking forward to our meeting...  (You are?  Are you sure?)
 

You’re composing the email, so take ownership.  Always err on the side of brevity, but know that writing in complete sentences makes you sound thoughtful and competent.

A Few Grammar Notes

Don’t start every sentence with ‘I.’  Make your writing dynamic.

Periods and commas go inside quotation marks. 

You generally don’t put a comma after ‘So,’ ‘And,’ or ‘But’ when they start a sentence.

Run spell check.  If you’re unsure of how a word is used, there’s this amazing tool called the internet that is chock-full of spelling and grammar websites to make sure you sound real super smart.  Here’s one now!  http://onelook.com/

Avoid all lowercase emails. 

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember when emailing is to be aware of your writing, and to consider your reader.  Remember this: Be professional. Be pointed. Be polite, but not passive.  Whatever your job or position, you can be sure that the way you sound in an email gets noticed.  

Your words matter, so choose good ones!

 

Kate is a court reporting student living in Atlanta, Georgia.  She completed a bachelor’s degree from LaGrange College in 2005 after which she lived in Japan for two years.  Kate enjoys spending time with her husband, her friends, her fam, her dog, a great glass of French red, and a good book.  

 

 

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