7 tips for improving email etiquette

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According to 2009 research from international consulting firm Deloitte, the average office worker sends around 160 emails and checks his or her inbox more than 50 times per day. If practice really made perfect, we’d all be Olympic gold medal-winning emailers by now.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I still hit the “send” button in the exact instant that I spot a typo, and I still get emails that give me the funny feeling that a co-worker didn’t mean to hit “reply all.”

Despite tons of practice, it seems that email etiquette is still something most of us are working to perfect.

So, in honor of National Email Week (what, that wasn’t on your Outlook calendar?) we talked to a few communications experts about proper email etiquette. Here’s what they had to say about what makes a good email, and what gets your message sent to the trash folder.

Do:

Be concise: “Email is intended for short, informational messages,” says Jodi R. R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, Mass., and author of “From Clueless to Class Act: Manners for the Modern Woman.” “Keep in mind that with some email systems it is possible for the recipient to read just the first three lines of your message without ever opening the email. Make the first couple lines count.”

Double check: “Never, ever skip the spell check and double check the word is not changed to a word you did not intend to use,” says Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas, a company that specializes in corporate etiquette training. “Spell check is not foolproof if it picks up a word that it ‘thinks’ you mean.”

While you’re rereading your email, also take a second to ensure that the correct person’s name is in the “To” field. It can be easy to accidentally type in the wrong name, especially with email programs that auto-complete email addresses when you start typing.

Be professional: “Treat email like a professional correspondence, because it is. It’s the only communication most executives see and you will be judged accordingly,” Gottsman says. That means spelling out words in their entirety (no “U,” “LOL,” etc.), using correct capitalization and including an email signature with your contact information.

Professionalism should extend to the style and formatting of your email as well. When choosing fonts and creating an email signature, use the “Phyllis” test. Anything you think Phyllis from “The Office” might include in her emails should be avoided in yours. This includes cutesy fonts like Comic Sans, email wallpaper, and signatures with flash animation or your favorite quote.

Be pleasant: You probably know from experience that it’s hard to tell whether someone is being sarcastic or serious via email. “Watch not only what you say, but how you say it,” Smith says. “Using all capital letters is considered yelling.” The same goes for sentences with excessive punctuation — ending a sentence with “!!!” or “???” will just make you seem angry.

Similarly, suggests Robby Slaughter, owner of Slaughter Development LLC, a business productivity firm based in Indianapolis, start your email off with a friendly greeting, not an order. “The word ‘hello’ followed by the name of the recipient does wonders in ensuring your email is well received and actually read,” he says.

Don’t:

Avoid face-to-face conversation: Sometimes, it’s just easier and more effective to walk into your boss’s office, or pick up the phone and call your customer. “Remember this rule: Email is more for coordination than it is for communication,” Slaughter says. If you have a lengthy project or proposal to discuss, schedule time to talk to the person face-to-face or over the phone.

Similarly, email shouldn’t be used to resolve conflict, or as a method of avoiding confrontation. “Don’t hide behind your computer,” Smith says. “Don’t use email as a shield to avoid having a conversation or a face-to-face interaction.”

Copy your whole team: “This is like scheduling a pickup from two taxi companies ‘just in case’– you’re wasting almost everyone’s time, and most of the recipients will assume that someone else will answer,” Slaughter says.

Send an email when you’re angry: In the heat of an angry moment, it is way too easy to fire off a scathing email full of things you’d never actually say to someone’s face. “Wait until you cool off before putting something down in writing,” Gottsman says.

While most of the experts we heard from agreed on the above points, there were some divided opinions on a couple of popular email practices, notably:

  • The use of emoticons in work emails. Some experts said they were OK, because they helped signify the tone of the email (i.e. putting a :) at the end of the sentence to tell the recipient you are joking), while others thought they were simply unprofessional.
  • Whether or not the “Sent from my BlackBerry” or “Sent from my iPhone” should be kept at the bottom of emails from wireless devices. Some argued that it should be there, to alert the recipient that formatting issues or typos are a result of emailing on the go, while others said it should be removed, because it’s a dead giveaway to clients and colleagues that you’re not in the office.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section, below.

35 Comments
  1. I learned from someone a long time ago that the best way to write an email is from the bottom up. Meaning you write your content, then include any attachments, then enter the recipients into the To and CC field. It doesn’t eliminate all errors mentioned in this article, but it will help, I guarantee it!

  2. I like being able to track the different messages in the body of an email. With some matters we will need to know rather it came from the iPhone, email, or blackberry (sent from my blackberry-statement). I think you should keep the information in the body of the email. Nine times out of ten the customer shouldn’t see our emails anyway. This information could be helpful for any legal matters. Also, it’s good to know that an employee wasn’t in the office at 3AM, they used a blackberry instead.

    I like this article. Keep giving us more good stuff.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. We are often in such a rush, these days, to get things off our plate that we can end up shooting ourself in the foot when it comes to business communication. It’s far too easy to fire off a response without first taking time to think about the message — let alone PROOF it!

    I shared a few more email etiquette tips on my blog recently — including “writing the topic of the email in the subject line.” It can be tough to find emails if there are various topics within one email. Keep it simple and keep the topics separate for each email.

    http://etiquettepage.com/business-etiquette/the-10-commandments-of-email-etiquette

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  5. I think the information in this article is fantastic. I hope to soon have a work from home job and will do most of my communication by email. This will really help me.

  6. I agree with the “do not copy” everyone on the team if it is not necessary; but at the bank where I work, it is done everyday all day long and it is very annoying to have to slow down productivity to read them.

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  9. I like the articles, keep them coming! The comment section is nice too. I find the information based on work, life experience interesting and informative.

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  12. Great article, thanks for the suggestions. A couple of my general rules of thumb are; 1) if an e-mail “conversation” reaches three exchanges, I pick up the phone or visit the other person’s office, and 2) I try to avoid the one word e-mail replies like “Thanks” or “OK”.

    • Hello, Marc~
       
      I really like your general rules of thumb and although I’ve never really put them into words like you just did, I do tend to follow them unless the ONLY way to communicate with someone IS through the written word.  THANK YOU!~

  13. Great article and good points. I also find it helpful if you are writing an important email to print it and proof it before sending as it’s easier to find mistakes on a printed copy. I also agree with Kris about writing from the bottom down – although I would suggest to attach the item first as people often forget to add the attachments!

    In regards to sending an email when angry – I absolutely agree with your article. I have often found that if you just sit back and calm down you will often decide not to send an angry reply and instead have time to think of an intelligent response. It is also an idea to decide when and where to pick your battles as sometimes it’s just not worth it long term.

    Lastly I like emoticons, but there is definitely a time and place for them and I would not use them with a new client or someone you have yet to build a working relationship with.

  14. I’m so grateful that someone is offering the etiquette of professsionalism for email; being in the infancy stage of this medium, it is importatnt to establish boundaries and guidelines. Great information.

    I agree with those who think emoticons indicate the tone. The challenge is not to overssue them

    And, I appreciate the “smartphone” message. It does alert the receiever re formatting issues. I think we are moving past caring if someone is in an office or not … remote workers are more prevalent all the time.

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  16. This is a great website for email etiquette – glad to see that many issues that have always bothered me about email communication styles are well founded.

    I will recommend the site as a guide to friends and colleagues.

  17. The best advice in this article? “Be concise”. Not disregarding the obvious advantages of e-mail, I wonder if we had more time to actually do our job before e-mail.

  18. I doubt that people still believe messages coming from your phone mean that you’re out of the office. I know plenty of people that answer email from internal meetings on their cell phone. Heck, sometimes I do it from my desk because something else is open on my computer. Busy people, moreover, are often on the go, and that doesn’t mean they’re playing hooky.

    For myself, I changed the footer on the cell phone message to say the following: Sent via cellphone. Please excuse the occasional finger fumble. ;-)

    And yes, that is an emoticon at the end. And no, I’m not a fan of promoting the cell phone maker with their self-serving default messages, but I do believe it’s important to let my email reader know that the message came from my phone. Besides letting them know why the occasional typo might slip in, I also believe it’s important to let them know why my usual detailed signature block is missing.

    • Hello, TracyTC;
       
      While I agree that many business people use their smartphones to get more business done, ie: multitask, and I agree that many people receiving such phone-sent messages do not immediately conclude that the sender is out of the office, I do believe that we need not overlook correct spelling and grammar.  I also think that the person receiving a timely phone-emailed message while the sender is on his way to a meeting in a cab, at lunch, or even on their way home might show their dedication to providing timely responses to queries and to show a client that they are indeed impor to the message sender.I do not think a “disclaimer” such as your rather cutesy end-message is, is really a good idea, because it says, “hey, if I messed up any spelling or grammar or punctuation just overlook it all because, ehy, I’m using my phone to message you and I haven’t taken the time to really learn how to do it correctly on my phone yet, so you should cut me some slack on my lack of business acumen”.  I think it would be a better move to leave that OFF and just take the extra 3 seconds to proof-read your messages before sending.
      A well-worded, correctly spelled and punctuated email regardless of sending source says a LOT about a person, just as excuses for sloppiness in these areas ALSO says a lot about a person.
      Food for thought!~

    • Hello, TracyTC;
       
      While I agree that many business people use their smartphones to get more business done, ie: multitask, and I agree that many people receiving such phone-sent messages do not immediately conclude that the sender is out of the office, I do believe that we need not overlook correct spelling and grammar.  I also think that the person receiving a timely phone-emailed message while the sender is on his way to a meeting in a cab, at lunch, or even on their way home might show their dedication to providing timely responses to queries and to show a client that they are indeed important to the message-sender. 
      I do not think a “disclaimer” such as a rather cutesy end-message, is really a good idea, because it says, “hey, if I messed up any spelling or grammar or punctuation just overlook it all because, hey, I’m using my phone to message you and I haven’t taken the time to really learn how to do it correctly on my phone yet, so you should cut me some slack on my lack of business acumen”.  I think it would be a better move to leave that OFF and just take the extra 3 seconds to proof-read your messages before sending.
      A well-worded, correctly spelled and punctuated email, regardless of sending source, says a LOT about a person, just as excuses for sloppiness in these areas ALSO says a lot about a person.
      Food for thought!~

    • Well, wujek, there are some jobs out there, just not enough jobs out there.  That is one reason it is important to put your best “all” forward.  I, too, am looking for work and have been since I completed my paralegal degree mid-August 2011.  I’ve found that paralegal postions require 2-5 years experience IN THAT FIELD OF LAW in order to be considered.  Now I am seeking any office-type position and volunteering as a paralegal for the King County Bar Association in order to gain experience.  Wujek, you ask, “who cares” and I reply, “I care, and if you want a job you should care, too!”  I admit you are right, though, if you don’t care, there IS NO job out there for you.  You have to care to have a shot at any job.I wish you luck and good fortune in finding a job, and I wish it for myself also!

  19. I check emails every couple of hours or so and then batch process them.
    For sending, I have the mail program hold them and then send them out 3 times a day. It’s a good process for me since it:
    i) avoids typos getting out
    ii) enables potential edits that I may think of
    iii) allows me to calm down if I responded a little brashly
    iv) delete if somebody else has addressed the issue later in my inbox

    I also added a sig file saying “I check emails 2-3 times a day and will respond within 24hours – if it’s more urgent, call me on xxx-xxx-xxxx”

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  23. One important item…. in the signature block include your contact phone numbers in case someone needs to phone you but they do not yet have your number. We work with very large customers and deal with new contacts daily. If they do not include their phone number we have to wait until they respond which delays very important critical interchanges.

  24. The most anoying thing is mis-spellings and the use of wrong words. My accountant refuses to spell check and often substitutes the wrong word (as their for there). Since he doesn’t double check his e-mail, I am wondering about my tax return! I have had a great relationship with him but he makes me wonder when he sends out “garbage”.

  25. I use email for class. Sometimes it is responded to and other times it is not. Having an important question or raising an issue should not be disregarded. My teachers reply to email when it is pleasant and not questioning. Being able to challenge something should be responded to. Everyone agrees to disagree, yet the challenge is taken as an insult to character instead of a computer glitch or error. It’s tough out here without cyberspace. Thank you.

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