Email etiquette is a hot topic in professional circles. Unlike some social etiquette reserved for more formal situations, email etiquette applies anytime you send an electronic message. Email etiquette guidelines are less about “being proper” and more importantly about presenting yourself as competent. In short, email etiquette matters because code violations at work have upward mobility or even monetary consequences, and breaking the rules with friends often leads to social drama. That said, don’t stress. Email etiquette is easy to remember. Here are the complete ten commandments of email etiquette to keep your e-life running smoothly.
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THOU SHALT NOT MIX WORK AND PERSONAL EMAIL
Although often overlooked, this is a professional no-no. Your work email represents you as you relate to your employer, and your communications are a reflection of not just you, but the company as well. At lower rungs on the ladder, this is seen as amateurish or poor judgement. Though it might not be worth bringing up to the employee, the judgement leaves a stain that a young professional might not realize is left behind. For seasoned professionals, the act looks presumptuous at best and entitled or ignorant at worst. Proprietors of small businesses are seen as an exception by some. Certainly, if you don’t pay the bills, the exception doesn’t apply.
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THOU SHALL UNDERSTAND AND CORRECTLY USE THE E-ACRONYMS
You’ve seen the acronyms, ‘cc’ and ‘bcc’. How to use them or respond according to their use is key. If you appear in the ‘to’ line, you are the recipient to whom the email is addressed—ergo, you respond. If your email appears in the ‘cc’ line it means you read and respond only if you have something important to clarify. Otherwise the is for your information only. As for the sensitive ‘bcc’ line—use with caution. It can be useful and or it can be deadly. The blind copy field signals that you are being given information privately. The reason could be a simple convenient pass of information, or more a corporately-covert measure. What is of utmost importance is if you see your name in this ‘bcc’ line you should never—ever reply to all. Your response to the group outs the sender who was giving you information quietly.
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THOU SHALT USE A SMART SUBJECT
The subject line is the most important nugget if information in your entire email. Choose one word or a very short phrase that titles your email. If getting information on an ordered item is your quest, a purchase order, item number, confirmation number or some smart look-up type information will be the difference between your email rising to the top of the help line, or being flagged as one that will take longer—so it will wait. People like little wins. It is completely natural for the easiest items in an inbox to get first attention. General subject lines such as a greeting make emails hard to find in a search or feel like unimportant matters that can wait for a later response. For example, a question about Mrs. Jones’ order from last week has “Jones” or the order number in the subject line, not only the word “question.”
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THOU SHALT REPLY TO ALL — OR NOT
There is no blanket rule about replying to all— except to use that noggin. Every. Single. Time. A reply to all is absolutely necessary in some cases and completely ridiculous and annoying in others. The intelligent sender asks, does everyone on the email need this information? Will it help everyone move faster, work more efficiently, know to check this item off their list, or make good decisions about next steps? If so, assuredly reply all. If not, even if you’re almost positive everyone wants to know how your weekend date went, or your witty response to the joke that was sent—professional speaking, never reply to all. Even among friends, when work emails are involved in the recipient list, avoid perpetuating the distracting onslaught of responses. Privately among your besties (personal emails)banter away with everyone in the loop!
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THOU SHALT NOT PONTIFICATE
No one wants to read a novel. Emails are not thought process blackboards. You know to edit your emails for spelling, but the pro-move is to edit them for content as well. Stream of consciousness emails tell people you are disorganized and willing to waste their time. If you think best by writing everything down, by all means, start there. Write everything in your email but do not hit send. This is key—emails are not for communicating feelings. Emails are black and white messages with a potential for disaster when a layer of emotion is superimposed over them by a guessing reader. Email etiquette is to use the correspondence to send just the facts. In most situation resolution circumstances, voice or face-to-face conversations are the professional way to communicate. An email restates the facts or talking points before or after the conversation is had. Here is an example of how to edit an email:
Hi John, I received your email on the day we were both traveling and you know my flight was delayed, so that is why I haven’t gotten back to you until this morning, which seems completely reasonable to me. Have the info you asked for, which is that we received 10 of the 12 items we ordered and I’ll need to call to get more info as to why. Can’t get any more info until the office opens today. I will have to let you know after that.
Edited before sending…
Hi John, We received 10 of the 12 items we ordered. I’m getting more info as soon as the office opens at 9. I’ll be in touch shortly after.
What if you need to explain? Before you start doing it via email, read commandment number six.
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THOU SHALT EDIT AWAY THE THREE E-OFFENSES
In addition to general stream-of-consciousness-zombie-typing (did he even read what he wrote?) there are three email offenses to find and edit. Once you have pecked out all your feelings, look for the trifecta of e-offenses. They are excuses, verbal aggression, and profanity. I know, you would never. Neither would I! I linked the definitions to these terms for both of us. So when we are editing our emails, we know what to look for. But seriously, the trick is this: read as the recipient would read. As writers, we tend to zip out what we want to say without considering how it could be read. Edit to short, factual sentences or phrases. If there is the slightest chance for information to be received negatively, likely it will. When emotions are high, the phone is where you go, adjectives are not your friends, and recapping a conversation in a quick email is always a good idea to clarify anything that could be misunderstood or mis-remembered later.
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THOU SHALT NOT YELL
ALL CAPS EQUALS E-YELLING. Would you yell in your office? And get away with it? The beauty of emails is the edit capability. The achilles heel is the send button. We get it, you’re in a hurry and the caps lock somehow engaged—hit send anyway? Nope. If you didn’t catch it before you hit send, mistakes happen. Shoot over a quick apology to clear the air, just as you would if you walked into someone’s or home or business yelling.
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THOU SHALT NOT USE EMAIL TO DROP THE BALL
Common rookie mistake—emailing does not check this item off your list. If you need to send time sensitive information, or if a follow up is required of the recipient, your work here is only partially done. Never use email to irresponsibly toss the proverbial ball. It only makes you look immature.
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THOU SHALT SIGN-OFF APPROPRIATELY
Getting creative with an email signature will backfire. Do not attach an image to your signature, no matter what the designer tells you (speaking as a designer). It slows loading time and impedes searching through past emails for attachments. My friends across the pond tell me to emphatically inform my fellow Americans to stop using ‘cheers’ in an email signature. Apparently it’s a Brit-only usage thing. Sincerely, Best regards, and Warmly, are all solid recommendations. If you use a phrase, only the first word is capitalized and the word or phrase is followed by a comma. A link to your company website and your contact phone number are very good to include. For work, don’t include any personal contact information in your signature unless your personal cell is also used for work. In your personal email, include anything you like—including links to social handles if you choose—however if you choose to represent your work in your personal emails, your boss should know and approve that kind of correlation.
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THOU SHALT SEND (ONLY WHEN) SOBER
Yes, I get asked this question. The last commandment is certainly not the least. The more you work the more likely it is that you have a glass of wine or an after-work sip or two, then you remember an email you need to send. Write the email, but sleep off the alcohol before sending. Never, ever send an email under the influence—of anything. This includes alcohol, prescription or illegal substances, and heightened emotions. Sleep it off.