E-Mail Etiquette

E-mail is essential to many businesses. However, the impersonal nature of the tool as a communications medium can result in employees forgetting classic business correspondence guidelines. While abbreviations, shorthand, lack of capitalization, and the like are fine for personal notes, a business should use e-mail as a way to enhance its image, not detract from it.

Keep Communication Businesslike

E-mail can be a permanent record, just like a paper memo. If you would not use a phrase or abbreviation in a letter, it should probably not be used in an e-mail communication. E-mail should be kept official and professional. Here are some tips:

  • Always use the spell checker. Most programs can be set to automatically scan outgoing messages.
  • Let the recipient know who you are. Set your e-mail program to use your name and optionally company as the "from" text.
  • Start with a salutation, do not simply launch into your message. Do you normally start talking or do you say "hello" first?
  • Use the same salutation (John, Ms. Smith, etc.) that you would use speaking with the recipient.
  • Be concise. Some people receive hundreds of messages a day, and do not desire to read a novel.
  • Separate paragraphs with a full line not just an indentation or tab. Whitespace tends to improve the readability of long messages.
  • Avoid using all caps, unless YOU WANT TO SHOUT.
  • Save "smiley" faces for personal messages.
  • Do not overemphasize a point with extra punctuation.
  • Do not overuse abbreviations or acronyms. Not everyone will understand shorthand such as "btw" (by the way), "fwiw" (for what it's worth) or "b4" (before), and using them does not improve readability or save much typing time.
  • Use humor carefully, and avoid sarcasm. It is difficult to judge someone's mood in a written message which can easily be misinterpreted.
  • Reread your message before sending it. This is a good time to fix grammatical errors or typos, and evaluate the tone of a message.

Avoid Attitude In Your Messages

Have you ever sent an e-mail message you wanted back? Recall the employee in a recent TV commercial. As he emotionally composes a nasty e-mail to his boss complaining as to why he cannot have a new laptop like everyone else, an IT staffer calmly sets up his new laptop on the desk behind him. The employee is left frantically searching for an "un-send" button.

Be careful of anger or a sharp retort. If you would not say something when talking to your recipient face-to-face, do not write it down.

Instead of firing off an emotionally charged (good or bad) e-mail, save the message as a draft. Most e-mail programs have a way to save a message in a "draft" folder, or select a "send later" option to leave it in your outbox.

Humans use facial expression, body language, and vocal inflection to communicate, in addition to the words chosen. While e-mail has its advantages (convenience, efficiency, and speed), it lacks these personal elements. Be sure your recipient cannot misread your intentions when reading your message.

Favor Clarity Over Complication

The beauty of e-mail lies in its simplicity. Do not send HTML (formatted) e-mail unless you are sure the recipient's mail program can support it. If they cannot, they may simply receive a page or two of HTML code instead of your message. Unfortunately HTML is the default format for many programs, such as Outlook Express, however, users can usually set the program to send mail using plain text only.

Respond to an e-mail by including enough of the original message to indicate your response. Most e-mail programs can quote the original message in a reply, but they include the whole message. Avoid sending the entire original message back again with a small note at the bottom, especially to a mailing list, newsgroup, or large group. Instead remove the text to which you are not replying and make it more readable for everyone.

Send attachments only if the recipient is expecting it. With the explosion of e-mail viruses, some organizations simply do not allow incoming e-mail attachments. Many individuals will not even open an e-mail attachment to a message they are not expecting. In fact we consider this good practice...modern viruses can fake the "from" address of a message, making it look like friends or acquaintances are sending the infected message.

Taking a casual approach to serious business matters could cause communication of ideas and attitudes that confuse (or worse, offend) your clients or coworkers. Instead, take a moment to ensure you are projecting the desired image for your company.

January 2003

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