It’s 11 a.m. on an ordinary day at the office. You notice that little yellow envelope in the bottom corner of your screen that means you’ve got e-mail. You click to see what’s come in.
It seems someone in your firm has a problem. With you. He is not happy, and he has e-mailed you and “cc”ed your boss, your co-workers, several other managers---just about everybody but the president of the company. There’s one of those threatening “if/then” sentences near the end, something along the lines of, “…if you are not willing or able to fix this situation, then…”
You’ve been flamed. (“Flaming” is e-mail lingo for venting strong emotion online or sending highly inflammatory messages.) So it’s 11:02 a.m. on that same morning, but now you’re fuming with rage. You’re tempted to bang out a response, hit “reply to all,” and share some ungentle sentiments of your own. But you pause. You resolve to wait until after lunch to frame a considered response, a polite response, one that recognizes not only the unique qualities of e-mail but also its pitfalls.
The fact is that most of us are still figuring out the rules of practical etiquette that enable us to use this medium to best advantage. E-mail can be as personal and revealing as a letter or as impersonal as junk mail. It has limitations in conveying emotions—but it can also convey emotions too well. Especially fiery ones! It’s instantaneous and easy—often too easy. What we need is e-mail etiquette. So here goes:
1. Use that subject line. Take a moment to summarize what your message is truly about, as a newspaper headline does. This helps get your message read. (Key words in the title line also help if you have to search for a message later on.) To avoid “Re: Re: Re:-itis” in multiple replies, summarize your response, as in “12:15 better than noon,” rather than “RE: lunch plans.”
2. Pause for a salutation. We are always grateful to be greeted with politeness and humanity. “I like the classic ‘Dear so-and-so,’ just as in a letter,” says Karen Ramsay, a computer network engineer. Short of “Dear,” it’s more and more common to start with your recipient’s name and a dash or comma. This also signals that it is a personal communication and not spam or a broadcast to the group.
3. Include pleasantries. In the elevator, we say, “Good morning.” At a co-worker’s office door we ask a greeting question. These are the lubricants of daily interaction. Some e-mails are more formal than others, but the vast majority move between two people who might just as easily be saying hello in the hall. In your e-mail, consider the same pleasantry you might employ in a conversation: Before you launch into your three points of action from the previous meeting, consider saying, “It was good to talk with the group today.” Or if it’s an individual, “It was good to hear about your trip to Cancun.” Or, if it’s an acquaintance you haven’t e-mailed in a while, “Hope you are well.” Why? It makes life more pleasant and your reader more apt to enjoy the message.
4. NO SHOUTING! All-caps in e-mails have the same effect as shouting in conversation. It’s considered rude. Even an all-cap word here and there is iffy, since it takes the reader aback.
5. Proof and spell-check. A poorly written message replete with run-on sentences, omitted punctuation, misused or misspelled words is difficult to read, easy to misunderstand---and reflects poorly on the sender. (And no one will ever tell you if you’ve made an embarrassing gaffe.)
6. Use “cc” sparingly. Copy co-workers or bosses only when there’s a reason to do so. Similarly, don’t use “Reply All” as your default. Resort to “Reply All” only when everyone truly needs to see your response.
7. Beware the negative. E-mail is great for conveying information, instructions, and objective facts. But, for some reason, slams slam harder in an e-mail. It is rarely a good idea to send anything negative online. If the news is that bad, it should be delivered face to face, or at least by phone, so your facial expression or the sound of your voice can soothe and explain tough news. “Even if it’s mild criticism,” says Ramsay, “take some extra words to make your tone much gentler than in regular conversation.” Another side to this issue is that everyone is very courageous in e-mail, precisely because they don’t have to face the person. A good rule is, “Never say anything in an e-mail you wouldn’t say to the person’s face.”
8. Remember, it’s public. E-mails are forwarded from person to person, often multiple times, with forwarders often forgetting a nugget of “touchy” or classified information that appeared several messages below. Says Karen Ramsay, “I tell my staff, before you send an e-mail, ask yourself if you’d be willing to post it on your office door.” And e-mails can legitimately be perused by employers and are often subpoenaed in legal cases, sometimes going back years.
9. Be careful about humor. Always a two-edged sword, humor can be extremely touchy in e-mail. Sarcasm is easily misunderstood and may come across as insulting. If you must make a light comment, it’s often a good idea to use a smiley-face or emoticon ---to make sure a recipient knows you’re kidding.
10. Never respond in anger. First, if someone has insulted you, it may well be a miscommunication, a lame attempt to be funny, or it might be a response to a hasty e-mail of yours. Pick up the phone and ask, “What was that about?” A double caution is, “Never ‘Reply to All’ in anger. This is a good way to make an enemy for life.
11. Avoid multiple questions. If you ask a series of questions, most responders will answer only the last question asked. If you are posing a series of questions, number them. This is also a good idea for multiple pieces of information. It simply helps the reader order the information. If you are responding to a series of questions, number them in your reply and use a different color to set your replies off from the questions.
12. The shorter the better. Something about a long e-mail can make a reader say, “Oh, no.” Shorter ones are better read and more quickly responded to. If you find yourself responding to an emotional situation with a three-page, single-spaced rehashing of events, consider the possibility that e-mail is not the best medium for working out the situation.
13. Kick the forwarding habit. Everyone gets too much mail already. If you can’t resist broadcasting jokes, inspirational stories and political diatribes, consider saving them for friends and family—and realize that we’ve all seen most of them already.
14. Sign-off: Consider the same pleasantry and sign off as you would use in a letter. “Please let me know if I can be of any assistance. Best regards, Brooks.”
15. Say “please” and “thank you.” Your grandmother was right: “They’re the three most valuable words in the English language: they don’t cost you a thing, and they pay dividends your whole life long.” In e-mail, as in life, a little courtesy goes a long way.