The Well-Tempered Emailer.
How to be well-behaved on — gasp! — email.
Contrary to rumors of its demise, email is still heavily used in both business and personal communications. Lately we’ve been talking about email etiquette. Many of us old-timers take email manners for granted, as we have learned the hard way what works and what doesn’t. But even today millions of people are introduced to email every day, and they might be interested in some guidelines. What follows are 7 lessons that apply to everyone and every email.
1. Proofread and correct your emails before you send them.
Correct every mistake in every email, even the little ones. Be diligent about this for two reasons. First, you dishonor your correspondent by including errors and making them struggle to make sense of what you typed, indicating that you don’t really care about them. Second, typos and grammar errors are confusing, far more so to others than it might seem to you because, after all, you know what you are trying to say. If you send emails with errors, your meaning may well be lost or confused, and the person you are sending to will feel a bit less respected. If you don’t care about these things, why bother sending an email at all?
2. Provide context!
Always include a copy of the message you are responding to. Your correspondent needs to know what this is about. It’s easy enough to append the previous email(s) to yours. Never force your correspondent to read it by placing it before your current reply, but position it following your reply so it there for reference if needed. Most email clients will do this for you automatically. You can substitute a short excerpt of the previous email if you’d like, but that is a lot of work for no real savings.
3. Don’t skimp on important data.
Don’t say “Next Thursday,” say “Thursday, 7 Sep.” Don’t say “I’ll see you there,” say “I’ll meet you at the fountain just outside the lobby of the Royal Arcade.” You don’t know what your correspondent doesn’t know. I have a friend who sends me email saying “meet at 8.” Then I have to send back to him asking “AM or PM.” He should include that information by default.
4. Only one topic per email.
Otherwise you are inviting confusion and inadequate response. If you have three things to say to Marya, send Marya three separate emails. Others will disagree on this point, but in my experience, the first topic of an email tends to get answered in the reply but the rest are ignored. By sending as separate emails, it’s much harder to lose a topic in the shuffle.
5. Don’t ever get angry in an email.
Don’t blame. Don’t accuse. Avoid sarcasm and innuendo. Email does not communicate empathy, nuance, facial expression, voice tone, or body language. Without those rich human forms of communication, there is no mechanism for subtlety, shaded meaning, or inference. What’s more, with email, it’s very difficult to de-escalate anger, limiting your ability to explain, compromise, and find a solution. If you are angry at someone, pay them a visit, but never send email.
6. Don’t use images in your signature.
Most email programs provide an option for including a snippet of text at the bottom of every message you send, called a signature or sig. I don’t feel that a sig is a necessity, however if you do use one, use only text. Many email reading apps can’t tell the difference between an image — your company logo, for example — in your sig and a bona fide attachment. The email message then gets displayed as having an attached file which can be misleading, especially when you are searching for a document someone sent you. Sigs comprised only of text are fine, and any reasonable length of text is okay, too.
7. If it’s genuinely confidential, don’t send it.
If the text of your email would embarrass you if it were to show up in the wrong hands, on the desk of your competitor, the Wall Street Journal, or as evidence in court, don’t write it and don’t send it. This rule applies to all digital communications platforms including Slack and Snapchat; if it’s inside a computer, it can be copied and sent to the wrong people. Use the phone instead.
The above 7 rules are ones that I believe everyone should follow. Here are a few additional rules that I follow because they are right for me. They may or may not be right for you.
A. I never use an autoresponder.
An autoresponder sends out the same pre-written email response to every message it receives. The only time it makes sense to use this is the day I die. That is when people who send me email need to know something about me that I cannot send them. Of course, I won’t be able to use an autoresponder when I die because I’ll be dead. That’s life.
B. Don’t use postal mail conventions.
The best salutation is simply your correspondent’s first name. “Dear” is for letters on paper in envelopes delivered by the postman. Ditto “Sincerely” and headers formatted for postal mail. Email is different from snail mail, so it’s not only acceptable to differ from old conventions, but it is appropriate.
C. Don’t consider email to be confidential.
Don’t bother putting a legalistic confidentiality notice in your sig. This is email. Anyone who wants to read it badly enough can do so. If what you have to say is truly confidential then you will wisely not say it with email, or any digital medium.