Email EtiquetteA Review of Email Etiquette

By Kathryn Towner, Email Marketing Consultant,
WinCommunications / WinM@il

What is so powerful it could spoil your customer relationships, blemish your reputation, entangle you in a legal battle, or even put you out of work?  Email is a powerful tool.  Knowing the rules of email etiquette puts you in control.

Americans are emailing at rates comparable to personal behaviors such as blinking and breathing.  And email, although a form of written communication, behaves much like verbal communication.  Email can be expressed quickly, and a response returned within seconds.  Unlike verbal communication, however, email has no backup messaging system which nonverbal cues provide to help clarify the true meaning of your message.  How does this matter?

The words you use in composing an email must be intentional, precise and complete. 

At the same time, email is indeed a in the family of printed communication.  Allowing that speed and interactivity make email so enticing; remember that email is also permanent. Records are available.  It is a fact.

Electronic Business Identity
In business, email exhibits a professional identity.  Imagine sending a business letter without your letterhead contact information.  Logos and stationery are carefully selected to complement a business brand or identity.  Since email is applied in the same business situations, it should maintain the same level of standards for presentation.  Include your logo, title, and contact information in business emails.

Most email etiquette mistakes happen when haste and emotion override common sense.  Remember respect.  Write the word “respect” on a sticky note and paste it to your laptop.  Respect in email includes being mindful of a reader’s time.  Stick to the point. Use “Reply All” only if you need “ALL” to reply back to you [two separate ideas in one sentence].  And always check the address in your “To” line to be sure it is correct.

Sources like the NetManners.com and the Inc.com offer email etiquette guidance along with other business writing rules.  The importance of this subject has increased dramatically over time, and resources are available for online training.

The subject of email etiquette tends to fall into four areas for discussion: content, style, tone, and grammar.

Effective Email Content

The first step is critical, and this is your Subject Line.  If this step is not constructed properly, the message will fall flat and your effort to communicate will tumble.  The subject line need to be precise, complete, and accurate.  Write your subject line as if it is the only piece of your email that will ever be read by the recipient.

Example

Ineffective Subject Line: “Important Message, please read.”
Improved Subject Line: “Conference committee meeting tomorrow at 10.”

The second step is the first sentence found in the body of your email.  As a rule, always include a greeting, and always include the name of your intended recipient.  This not only is proper etiquette and a display of respect, it also presents immediate assurance that the email is where it should be.

Example

Ineffective Greeting: “Hey.”
Improved Greeting: “Good morning, Thomas.”

The third step is the body content of your email. As a rule, don’t write it in an email if you wouldn’t say it over the phone.  Show respect for the reader’s time; be brief.  Read the email out loud before sending.  Ask yourself, what do I expect the response to be?  If you want the reader to respond, say so.  And if you need a response within a certain time frame, say that too.  Never assume.

Example

Ineffective Body Copy: “Right.  But I can’t help thinking every time I see her that she needs to send that item back to its owner.  I remember when I used to have one of those, and my mom always told me it looked awful and was a nuisance, and I can’t stand looking at it.  Anyway, the rules are in the box.  Take a look.”
Improved Body Copy:  “The rules are in your inbox.  Please read them and respond before the end of the day.”

Likewise, understand email is not private when you are at work. Email is public.

Developing the Proper Email Style & Tone

Your email writing style will vary according to the situation.  Ask yourself, “In what capacity am I writing?”  Are you writing as an employee?  Are you writing as a business prospect?  Are you a boss, a customer, or a partner?  Remember, in business, all business email is business email.  Assume your correct professional position each time you write an email.  It is best to avoid being too casual.  Judith Kallos of NetManners.com says, “Never assume a position of informality in your business e-mail…for commercial/business reasons, one should communicate as if e-mail is on their company letterhead at all times. This is your business’s image you are branding.”

Your style is your posture.  It is one of the first things people notice.  Make sure you are standing up straight in your emails.

All the body language in the world cannot alleviate the tone of an angry email message.  As a rule, emails should be brief.  But if your sentences are too brief, this can create a sense of rudeness.  However, if your sentences are too long, the message becomes dull and loses its punch.  Read your email out loud before sending.  And never send an angry message.  Those situations need to be handled in person.

Email Grammar and Sentence Structure

Respect the rules of grammar and earn respect within your business community.  Punctuate properly; don’t over punctuate.  According to The Little Pink Book of Etiquette by Ruth Cullen, a few common grammar mistakes include:

  • When subjects and verbs don’t agree (e.g., ‘The cat play with his toy mouse.’)
  • Ending sentences in a preposition (e.g., ‘Where are you at?’)
  • Making up words (e.g., ‘irregardless’)
  • Using slang to excess (e.g., ‘dude,’ ‘uh huh,’ ‘yeah’)

Writing for email is similar to writing for news.  Use an inverted pyramid organization for sentence and paragraph structure.  Your most important information comes first, at the top, and above the scroll.  Next important information is placed in the second paragraph.  Also, remember people don’t read emails; they scan them.  Use bullet points and subheads to help people understand your message more quickly.

Compared to instant messaging and text messaging, email is the more formal medium.  Save the abbreviations, slang, and idle chat for your informal communications.

With business email, following the rules of etiquette may mean taking just one more minute before you hit “Send.”  Be respectful, proof read before sending, check grammar and spelling, and verify the address to which you are sending.  Ultimately this can be the minute that saves your relationship, retains your customer, or keeps your job. Your email is your image: take control.