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Home  > Article

EZ Email Etiquette

By Nancy R. Mitchell, The Etiquette Advocate

What's not to like about email? It can be quick, informative, efficient, and...informal. Ah, therein lies the problem for all of us who email in business.

In our personal lives, we may go to great lengths to establish a unique email persona with family and friends-by liberally sprinkling our messages with color, creative fonts or designs, abbreviations from the vast lexicon of email shorthand, and a legion of smiley faces. But think for a moment about your business environment and network. On any given day, you will interact with at least three generations of people, and only a small percentage of those will LOL at an informal approach to business email. 

The #1 reason for adopting a more formal approach for business email is to show respect for those with whom you are communicating. When you begin a new business relationship by email, compose your messages as if you were putting the same information on company letterhead and sending it by snail mail. Once a relationship is established, you may become more informal.  

Best Practices for Business Email

1)      In most instances, you should open email messages with a salutation: "Dear (name)"; "Good morning"; "Hi, Team"; "Happy Holidays!" Once an email exchange is established and you are sending quick responses back and forth, a salutation is not always necessary.

2)      When beginning a business relationship, use an honorific (Mr., Ms., Mrs., Dr., General) and last name in the first few messages you exchange with a contact, colleague, superior or client.  IT SHOWS RESPECT (I'm emphasizing here, not shouting-see # 8 below) and helps to launch the relationship in a positive way. This rule applies to all recipients, even if you know they are your age or younger and no matter what position they hold in their organization. After a few email exchanges, you will notice that they begin to address you by your first name or begin to sign their messages using their first name only. These will be signs that you may relax your style and use their first name in your messages. In most instances, after two or three messages have been exchanged, you may begin to use first names. With others (i.e., some supervisors, senior-level members of your organization, important clients), you may never get beyond the honorific.

3)      Email is not private, no matter what you say in a message subject line, heading or introductory paragraph. Each time you compose and send an email message, remind yourself that any email message can be printed out and posted on a company bulletin board. With that thought in mind, you will choose your words carefully.

4)      For important messages that need special attention, compose and proofread them before entering the recipient's names(s) into the "TO:" box. This will prevent you from sending a message prematurely.

5)      When responding to an email in anger, compose your response and store it overnight in a drafts folder. Re-read the message the following day, when you have had time to cool off, and then revise it accordingly.

6)      Proceed with caution when you hit "Reply" vs. "Reply All." You may be sending your message to everyone who has ever been part of the email string of messages, and you may be including someone who was sent a blind copy of the message sent to you.

7)      When you have developed a list serve, large or small, it is courteous not to reveal the email addresses of the entire list to all recipients. Explore the capabilities of your email system in order to keep your list confidential.

8)      Develop and maintain a professional image in your email correspondence. Avoid purple letters on a chartreuse background, odd fonts, smiley faces or too many abbreviations. And, beware when using CAPITAL LETTERS. You may be using them for emphasis, but they can be interpreted as anger or as shouting at the recipient. 

9)      Respond to business email within 24 hours. (That is not a typo-24 hours.) Even if you do not have an answer to the sender's question or request, send a quick response that says you received the message and give some indication of when the sender might expect your response.

10)   When receiving information you have requested from others, send a quick message to indicate that you have received what was sent (i.e., "Got it. Thanks.") Don't make people guess about whether or not their messages are getting through to you. It's basic good manners to respond.

11)   Don't use your business email to forward gossip, jokes, chain letters or other non-work-related messages or attachments. Delete these items, without responding, when they appear in your mailbox.

12)   It is not always possible to recall a message you have sent in error or anger. The best damage control is to admit your error, apologize if required, and learn from your mistake.

Just as you need two wardrobes, one for your personal and one for your professional life, you need to establish two email images for yourself and to recognize where the line is drawn that separates the two. When in doubt, lean toward the formal side of the scale when emailing in business. You will never offend someone by being too formal, but you will offend some individuals by being too informal too early in a relationship.

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