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Email etiquette rules

ar5l3236467w4xf2wk06You use email every day and have sent countless messages to colleagues, clients and senior managers without a problem – so why start worrying about etiquette now?

‘How you send business emails, as well as what you say in them, can reveal much about you professionally,’ says Rob Williams, an occupational psychologist and author of “Brilliant Verbal Reasoning Tests” and “Brilliant Numeracy Tests”.

‘Just because you haven’t been pulled up on it before, doesn’t mean you haven’t unwittingly made mistakes. People may have felt awkward pointing it out or presume you’re a rude person generally.’

Ensure you never make a faux pas again, with our eight rules for email etiquette.

1. Never email in anger

Your knuckles might be white with rage, but think twice before you let your fingers hit the keyboard.

‘It only takes a moment to fire off an irate message to a colleague or a client – but the damage could take much longer to undo,’ warns Rob.

‘If you have a difficult email to write prepare a draft, save it and take a 24-hour “cooling off” period before clicking send. Abraham Lincoln used to draft difficult letters and then put them in his desk drawer – sometimes just putting angry thoughts to paper meant the letter never had to be sent.’

2. Make the subject line count

How many times have you seen an email land in your inbox and not had a clue what it’s about? Or looked for an email and found 30 with the same subject line, when the conversation had moved on, because no one thought to update it before hitting reply each time?

Rob says: ‘use the subject line of your emails judiciously, always clearly stating what the message is about. Emails with vague subject lines like “hello” are likely to languish in the recipient’s in-box.

‘It also makes it difficult for the recipient to retrieve the email if necessary, once they’ve stored it in their files. It goes without saying, never send with a blank subject line.’

3. Don’t ‘cc’ the world

Are you in the habit of hitting “reply all” on every email you send?

‘Consider each and every person you are copying in on a message and ask yourself: do they really need to receive it?’ asks Rob.

‘It’s very frustrating to be included in an email chain that is not relevant to you. And if you continually send emails to the widest possible audience, it may be that people ignore your next message which does relate to them directly.’

4. Drop the sarcasm and smileys

You never know how an email is going to be interpreted, so take care before using humour, especially sarcasm. What you find funny, the recipient may find offensive.

‘Tone of voice does not come across in written communication, so avoid writing anything that could be taken the wrong way,’ warns Rob.

‘Emoticons can help convey meaning, but they don’t look very professional. Smiley faces don’t really belong in business emails – and the same goes for text speak! So save the LOLS for your BFF…’

5. Read it properly before you reply

It sounds obvious, but before you reply to an email, read it carefully. That way, you will avoid asking unnecessary questions and can answer every question put to you.

‘An email reply should answer all questions, and if you can, pre-empt further ones from being asked,’ says Corinne Mills, Managing Director of Personal Career Management.

‘If you don’t know the answer to a question, say you will get back with that information. If you’re able to pre-empt relevant questions sensitively (i.e., without seeming patronising), your clients will be impressed with your efficiency.

‘However, if it’s not clear what they are asking for, then don’t second-guess, ask for clarification. It’s often quicker and easier to do this by picking up the phone to talk to them rather than playing email ping-pong, especially if it’s a delicate or complex issue.’

6. Make it easy to read

Others will form an opinion about you from how you format emails, not just what you say in them. Would you rather be seen as organised or rambling?

Corinne says: ‘Short paragraphs, with a blank line between each paragraph, works best. When making points, number them – that way, the recipient can get back to you on ‘No 4′.

‘Sentences should also be short, around 15-20 words. Any calls to action should be clearly marked. One caveat to that is capital letters. However tempting, don’t write in capitals, it will only come across as ‘shouty’. Use bold or underline (sparingly) for important data instead.’

7. Don’t mark it high priority/urgent unless it is

Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? Overuse ‘Urgent’ or ‘Important’ in your subject headline and it will lose its impact when you need it.

Rob says: ‘Even if a message is important, you risk coming across as slightly aggressive if you flag it “high priority”. If every other email you send is “urgent”, think about what that says about you.’

8. Don’t be naïve enough to think email is private

Finally, don’t email anything that you wouldn’t want to see pinned up on the office notice board.

‘Lots of employees have landed themselves in hot water for sending inappropriate emails. That includes criticising a client or colleague, making libellous, sexist or racially discriminating comments or even passing on potentially offensive jokes,’ says Corinne.

‘If someone forwards it to the wrong person you could be left more than just red faced – it could be a disciplinary matter. If you don’t want the information to be read by everyone, don’t send it.’

Image: © anyaberkut –


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