E-mail etiquette

How to use e-mail effectively, get your point across and NOT look like a total dork.

When two people converse face to face, scientists tell us that about 70% of the information transferred from one brain to the other is NOT in the actual words spoken. It’s in the way they are said, the tone, inflection, facial expression, body language, past history etc.

e-mail is just the words. So maybe 30% of what you are trying to say can be put into an e-mail message.

There are some specific rules about e-mail you need to know.

E-mail etiquette: In this day and age, we expect everyone already knows how to use every tool in the office and so we don’t often discuss policy or etiquette. Do we think that new employees will magically absorb the company way of doing things just by being here?

Take e-mail, used properly it is wonderful, used badly it is the single biggest time waster and cause of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

This document seeks to provide some guidance on how to use e-mail properly.

  1. Be concise and to the point. Do not make an e-mail longer than it needs to be. Remember that reading an e-mail is harder than reading printed communications and a long e-mail can be very discouraging to read.
  2. Answer all questions, and pre-empt further questions. An e-mail reply must answer all questions, and pre-empt further questions – If you do not answer all the questions in the original e-mail, you will receive further e-mails regarding the unanswered questions, which will not only waste your time and your customer’s time but also cause considerable frustration. Moreover, if you are able to pre-empt relevant questions, your customer will be grateful and impressed with your efficient and thoughtful customer service.
  3. Use proper spelling, grammar & punctuation. This is not only important because improper spelling, grammar and punctuation give a bad impression of your company, it is also important for conveying the message properly. E-mails with no full stops or commas are difficult to read and can sometimes even change the meaning of the text. And, if your program has a spell checking option, why not use it?
  4. Make it personal. Not only should the e-mail be personally addressed, it should also include personal i.e. customised content. For this reason auto replies are usually not very effective. However, templates can be used effectively in this way, see next tip.
  5. Use templates for frequently used responses. Some questions you get over and over again, such as directions to your office or how to subscribe to your newsletter. Save these texts as response templates and paste these into your message when you need them. You can save your templates in a Word document, or use pre-formatted e-mails.
  6. Answer swiftly. Customers send an e-mail because they wish to receive a quick response. If they did not want a quick response they would send a letter or a fax. Therefore, each e-mail should be replied to within at least 24 hours, and preferably within the same working day. If the e-mail is complicated, just send an e-mail back saying that you have received it and that you will get back to them. This will put the customer's mind at rest and usually customers will then be very patient!
  7. Do not attach unnecessary files. By sending large attachments you can annoy customers and even bring down their e-mail system. Wherever possible try to compress attachments and only send attachments when they are productive. Moreover, you need to have a good virus scanner in place since your customers will not be very happy if you send them documents full of viruses! When sending e-mail internally, you can attach a hyperlink to the file (if it is located on the server) rather than send the actual file to everyone. Attachments take time to send, especially to users outside the head office.
  8. Use proper structure & layout. Since reading from a screen is more difficult than reading from paper, the structure and lay out is very important for e-mail messages. Use short paragraphs and blank lines between each paragraph. When making points, number them or mark each point as separate to keep the overview.
  9. Do not overuse the high priority option. We all know the story of the boy who cried wolf. If you overuse the high priority option, it will lose its function when you really need it. Moreover, even if a mail has high priority, your message will come across as slightly aggressive if you flag it as 'high priority'.
  10. Do not write in CAPITALS. IF YOU WRITE IN CAPITALS IT SEEMS AS IF YOU ARE SHOUTING. This can be highly annoying and might trigger an unwanted response in the form of a flame mail. Therefore, try not to send any e-mail text in capitals.
  11. Don't leave out the message thread. When you reply to an e-mail, you must include the original mail in your reply, in other words click 'Reply', instead of 'New Mail'. Some people say that you must remove the previous message since this has already been sent and is therefore unnecessary. However, I could not agree less. If you receive many e-mails you obviously cannot remember each individual e-mail. This means that a 'threadless e-mail' will not provide enough information and you will have to spend a frustratingly long time to find out the context of the e-mail in order to deal with it. Leaving the thread might take a fraction longer in download time, but it will save the recipient much more time and frustration in looking for the related e-mails in their inbox!
  12. Add disclaimers to your e-mails. It is important to add disclaimers to your internal and external mails, since this can help protect your company from liability. Consider the following scenario: an employee accidentally forwards a virus to a customer by e-mail. The customer decides to sue your company for damages. If you add a disclaimer at the bottom of every external mail, saying that the recipient must check each e-mail for viruses and that it cannot be held liable for any transmitted viruses, this will surely be of help to you in court. If your company has an e-mail policy in place and adds an e-mail disclaimer to every mail that states that employees are expressly required not to make defamatory statements, you have a good case of proving that the company did everything it could to prevent offensive e-mails.
  13. Read the e-mail before you send it. A lot of people don't bother to read an e-mail before they send it out, as can be seen from the many spelling and grammar mistakes contained in e-mails. Apart from this, reading your e-mail through the eyes of the recipient will help you send a more effective message and avoid misunderstandings and inappropriate comments.
  14. Do not overuse Reply to All. Only use Reply to All if you really need your message to be seen by each person who received the original message.
  15. Mailings > use the Bcc: field or do a mail merge. When sending an e-mail mailing, some people place all the e-mail addresses in the To: field. There are two drawbacks to this practice: (1) the recipient knows that you have sent the same message to a large number of recipients, and (2) you are publicising someone else's e-mail address without their permission. One way to get round this is to place all addresses in the Bcc: field. However, the recipient will only see the address from the To: field in their e-mail, so if this was empty, the To: field will be blank and this might look like spamming. You could include the mailing list e-mail address in the To: field, or even better, if you have Microsoft Outlook and Word you can do a mail merge and create one message for each recipient. A mail merge also allows you to use fields in the message so that you can for instance address each recipient personally. For more information on how to do a Word mail merge, consult the Help in Word.
  16. Take care with abbreviations and emoticons. In business e-mails, try not to use abbreviations such as BTW (by the way) and LOL (laugh out loud). The recipient might not be aware of the meanings of the abbreviations and in business e-mails these are generally not appropriate. The same goes for emoticons, such as the smiley :-). If you are not sure whether your recipient knows what it means, it is better not to use it.
  17. Be careful with formatting. Remember that when you use formatting in your e-mails, the sender might not be able to view formatting, or might see different fonts than you had intended. When using colours, use a colour that is easy to read on the background.
  18. Take care with rich text and HTML messages. Be aware that when you send an e-mail in rich text or HTML format, the sender might only be able to receive plain text e-mails. If this is the case, the recipient will receive your message as a .txt attachment. Most e-mail clients however, including Microsoft Outlook, are able to receive HTML and rich text messages.

  19. Do not forward chain letters. Do not forward chain letters. We can safely say that all of them are hoaxes. Just delete the letters as soon as you receive them.

  20. Do not request delivery and read receipts. This will almost always annoy your recipient before he or she has even read your message. Besides, it usually does not work anyway since the recipient could have blocked that function, or his/her software might not support it, so what is the use of using it? If you want to know whether an e-mail was received it is better to ask the recipient to let you know if it was received.
  21. Do not ask to recall a message. Biggest chances are that your message has already been delivered and read. A recall request would look very silly in that case wouldn't it? It is better just to send an e-mail to say that you have made a mistake. This will look much more honest than trying to recall a message.
  22. Do not copy a message or attachment without permission. Do not copy a message or attachment belonging to another user without permission of the originator. If you do not ask permission first, you might be infringing on copyright laws.
  23. Do not use e-mail to discuss confidential information. Sending an e-mail is like sending a postcard. If you don't want your e-mail to be displayed on a bulletin board, don't send it. Moreover, never make any libellous, sexist or racially discriminating comments in e-mails, even if they are meant to be a joke.
  24. Use a meaningful subject. Try to use a subject that is meaningful to the recipient as well as yourself. For instance, when you send an e-mail to a company requesting information about a product, it is better to mention the actual name of the product, e.g. 'Product A information' than to just say 'product information' or the company's name in the subject.
  25. Use active instead of passive. Try to use the active voice of a verb wherever possible. For instance, 'We will process your order today', sounds better than 'Your order will be processed today'. The first sounds more personal, whereas the latter, especially when used frequently, sounds unnecessarily formal.
  26. Avoid using URGENT and IMPORTANT. Even more so than the high-priority option, you must at all times try to avoid these types of words in an e-mail or subject line. Only use this if it is a really, really urgent or important message.

  27. Avoid long sentences. Try to keep your sentences to a maximum of 15-20 words. E-mail is meant to be a quick medium and requires a different kind of writing than letters. Also take care not to send e-mails that are too long. If a person receives an e-mail that looks like a dissertation, chances are that they will not even attempt to read it!

  28. Don't send or forward e-mails containing libellous, defamatory, offensive, racist or obscene remarks. By sending or even just forwarding one libellous, or offensive remark in an e-mail, you and your company can face court cases resulting in multi-million dollar penalties. Never send an e-mail in anger. Wait until you have calmed down before you send it.
  29. Don't forward virus hoaxes and chain letters. If you receive an e-mail message warning you of a new unstoppable virus that will immediately delete everything from your computer, this is most probably a hoax. By forwarding hoaxes you use valuable bandwidth and sometimes virus hoaxes contain viruses themselves, by attaching a so-called file that will stop the dangerous virus. The same goes for chain letters that promise incredible riches or ask your help for a charitable cause. Even if the content seems to be bona fide, the senders are usually not. Since it is impossible to find out whether a chain letter is real or not, the best place for it is the recycle bin.
  30. Keep your language gender neutral. In this day and age, avoid using sexist language such as: 'The user should add a signature by configuring his e-mail program'. Apart from using he/she, you can also use the neutral gender: ''The user should add a signature by configuring the e-mail program'.
  31. Don't reply to spam. By replying to spam or by unsubscribing, you are confirming that your e-mail address is 'live'. Confirming this will only generate even more spam. Therefore, just hit the delete button or use e-mail software to remove spam automatically.
  32. Use cc: field sparingly. Try not to use the cc: field unless the recipient in the cc: field knows why they are receiving a copy of the message. Using the cc: field can be confusing since the recipients might not know who is supposed to act on the message. Also, when responding to a cc: message, should you include the other recipient in the cc: field as well? This will depend on the situation. In general, do not include the person in the cc: field unless you have a particular reason for wanting this person to see your response. Again, make sure that this person will know why they are receiving a copy.

The cc: actually means “courtesy copy” and not “carbon copy” as most people think. So only send a copy when it is a courtesy to do so. For example sending a stern reply and copying in that person’s supervisor is NOT a courtesy – it is a veiled threat. Don’t do it.