Email Etiquette Tips

Whether you like it or not, unless you are selling pine cones from a cart in the middle of the wilderness, email is an essential form of business communication for any business owner or manager, and poor email practices will reflect badly upon your business.

No matter what your generation or communicative persuasion, you need to be able to email effectively and efficiently to ensure the survival of your business, because although you may or may not like communicating via email, the majority of your clients and associates do.

As a business owner, you have also more than likely been subjected to poor email etiquette, or witnessed poor correspondence practices of staff members, so you would be aware of the negative implications of poor email practices.

In an economy where, more often than not, potential clients discover your business via the internet, and in which you are in constant competition with online operators, email is often your first impression… so don’t let it be your last impression on prospective clientele.

By following the principles outlined below by David Tuffley of Griffith University Qld, your email is more likely to be well-received and understood:

  1. Ensure that the subject line summarises your message. Use this field to indicate content and purpose. If you have ever had to search for a poorly/mislabelled email, you will know how important this is, not just for retrieval purposes because it helps to aid time management for all involved, but also because poorly labelled correspondence can create confusion or lead to important details being overlooked.
  2. Don’t assume the recipient knows the background. Include enough contextual information at the beginning of the e-mail for the recipient to know what the matter is about. If in doubt, put background information in, but don’t overwhelm them with too much detail, or they will not read the entire email.
  3. Keep it concise. Keep messages brief and to the point, but not so brief that it causes the problem outlined in tip number two. This includes deleting any irrelevant text when an email has been in circulation over time. No-one wants to scroll down through pages of text in order to reach the message they want to read. If the sense of the email will be lost by deleting that text, however, leave it in.
  4. Reply within 48 hours. Try to reply within 24 hours, unless not possible. The longer you leave it to reply, the more likely you will forget or have too big a jam of unanswered email,
  5. Allow time for a reply. E-mail messages are not usually required to be answered immediately, though it is good practice if you do. Before sending a reminder, allow some time for a response, sometimes even a few days. Not everyone is online 24 hours a day.
  6. Use the BCC field when sending bulk email. If you’re sending email to a whole list of people, put their email addresses in the BCC field. That way, the privacy of the recipient is respected, and spammers cannot harvest the email addresses for their dastardly purposes.
  7. Don’t shout at people. Don’t use all capital letters, (UPPERCASE), or oversized fonts. The reader will likely feel they are being shouted at, or even threatened. If you must use uppercase, use it very sparingly and only to emphasise a particularly important point. Ask yourself, ‘if I was talking to the recipient face to face, would I be raising my voice to them?’  There are many ways to add emphasis to a word/phrase such as bold text, italic text, or by enclosing the word/phrase with an asterisk, for example “It is *important* not to shout at people by using uppercase”. Large sized fonts (greater than 12) are useful for people with visual impairment, but are not appropriate for general use.
  8. Avoid angry outbursts. Don’t send or reply to email when you are angry. Wait until you have calmed down and then compose the email. Once written and sent, it can’t be recalled. Angry or intemperate email has a way of rebounding on the sender. As a guide, ask yourself, “Would I say this to the person’s face?”
  9. Correct punctuation and grammar. Use punctuation in a normal manner. One exclamation point is just as effective as five. Use correct grammar as with any written message.
  10. Layout message for readability. Use spaces and breaks between paragraphs and long sentences to make it easier on the reader.
  11. Keep the thread. When replying to an e-mail, use the reply option on the sidebar in your mail. This will keep the message in the “thread”, and make it easier for the recipient to follow.
  12. Spelling. Check your spelling, and don’t just rely on autocorrect to pick up the slack. If you don’t know how to spell something, look it up.
  13. Don’t ‘Reply to All’ unless necessary. Think twice about sending a reply to everyone. Perhaps only selected people need to see this email? Sending it to everyone may simply be contributing to an already cluttered inbox or create confusion.
  14. Acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons are OK within reason when applied in certain situations, but don’t overdo it. If the recipients can reasonably be expected to know what the acronyms and abbreviations stand for, then occasionally it is ok to utilise them, but it is always best to use full titles and terms when communicating with someone outside of your own organisation. ‘Emoticons’ are the combinations of symbols used to represent emotions (e.g. 😉 = a winking smiley face) should only be used sparingly within a light-hearted context. As a general rule though, try not to use emoticons when communicating with someone outside of your organisation, and never use them in formal business context.
  15. Don’t be over-familiar with the recipient. Many people are offended by strangers being over-familiar. As a rule, use the title or form of address that you would use in verbal communication. Also, remember to use greetings at the beginning of an email (even just a simple “Hi David”) and sign off with name or electronic signature. Emails without greetings can come across as abrupt and unprofessional.
  16. Email is not always confidential. It is (however unethical) easy for the contents of your email to be distributed by others without your knowledge. So it is wise to avoid saying anything you wouldn’t write on the back of a postcard.
  17. Correct priority. Avoid marking an email ‘high priority’ when it is really ‘normal’ priority.
  18. Use the blind copy and courtesy copy appropriately. Don’t use BCC to keep others from seeing who you copied; it shows confidence when you directly CC anyone receiving a copy. Do use BCC, however, when sending to a large distribution list, so recipients won’t have to see a huge list of names. Be cautious with your use of CC; overuse simply clutters inboxes. Copy only people who are directly involved.
  19. Don’t use e-mail as an excuse to avoid personal contact. Don’t forget the value of face-to-face or even voice-to-voice communication. Email is a highly effective form of documentation and aids recollection of important details, but it is also important to pick up the phone and schedule that business lunch, to help maintain business relationships.
  20. Remember your electronic signature. To ensure that people know who you and your company are, include a signature that has your contact information, including your mailing address, Website, and phone numbers.

David Tuffley is a Senior Consultant with the Software Quality Institute (SQI) and a Lecturer in the School of ICT, at Griffith University since 1999. (