The Top 5 Rules for Email Etiquette


Do you find yourself shaking your head on a daily basis at some of the emails you receive? Well, somebody is probably shaking their head about something you’ve sent, too.

It may seem basic and elementary to be going over email etiquette if you’re already in an established career or even just post-grad status, but it’s not. Email etiquette is like a health physical – you’ve got to do an annual check-up to make sure you’re on the right track, and having some outside perspective is best. You may check your own blood pressure but you wouldn’t take the blood sample yourself, so let the following tips be your guide as you review your own outbox.

  1. Mirror your reply to the sender’s message
    Tone is the ultimate catch-22 when it comes to emails; it matters a whole lot but we’re unsure how to measure it. It’s easy to read a message and be completely unsure if the sender is upset, happy, passionate or just neutral. Unless your message calls for a specific tone – say if a reckless error was made and needs to be rectified immediately – a good rule of thumb is to mirror your response to the sender’s message. Did they use a formal greeting and sendoff? If yes, then you should too. Did a close colleague shoot you a quick one-line question? It’s safe to respond in a similar, brief manner. Mirroring the sender’s tone and style keeps the conversation on a neutral and friendly level. Disregarding their cues can create doubt, confusion and even hostility.
  1. Be positive
    Here’s one theory on why Mondays are so challenging: your first hour of work is spent not just wading through dozens of emails from the weekend, but dozens of curse, short or sternly worded emails. Nothing gets the week off to a rough start like a reply that only says “Received” when you had sent a detailed message asking for specific feedback. There’s a difference between being efficient and being rude, and over email, that gap can be bridged very quickly. Keep your emails friendly and upbeat. Use positive, supportive language when possible – acknowledge the effort someone put into a detailed report, thank people for their help with a sticky situation or their prompt reply, and offer constructive (not critical) feedback. Email is not the best platform to share professional or personal critiques. If negative feedback is needed, do it in person or over the phone to keep the conversation personal and private. A simple tactic to be more positive over email is to review your verbs. Are you seeing a lot of “don’t”, “can’t” or “won’t” in your emails? Reverse them. Use some phrasing tips from this recent Forbes article (see #4).
  2. Hyperlink URLs
    It can be demoralizing to open an email and be confronted with five paragraphs and 700 words of text to consume all before lunch. When half of those lines are bright blue web links, it can still be annoying. Take advantage of technological tools and hyperlink a URL to the phrase in your email that describes the link. In most email programs, simply highlight the word(s), right click and paste the URL. It will save space in your email body and makes the message appear more professional overall.
  3. Respond soon, sooner and now
    Everyone has different standards for what constitutes a fast reply. Some appreciate an immediate note saying: “Got your message – will respond soon.” Some find that unnecessary and don’t mind waiting for a more in-depth response. To avoid playing the guessing game with every email contact, consider these basic guidelines from HubSpot: respond to your immediate teammates within 12 hours (or a standard business day); respond to your general colleagues within 24 hours; and respond to external contacts by the end of the week. If you prefer or require a response earlier than those timeframes, be explicit in your request and mark the email high priority.
  4. A subject, but no email body
    Something that can be equally frustrating as a novel-length email or a delayed response is an email where the message is in the subject line and nowhere else. It may be something simple from “Can you come to my desk?” to something more complex “Meeting notes are saved on the Q Drive > Meeting > Notes > 2016”, but it’s impolite regardless. This type of message helps reinforce the negative stereotypes behind emails that claim they’re robotic, devoid of emotion and impersonal. It’s always slightly disrespectful of the recipient’s time because you know they’re going to open the email expecting a message and instead be faced with a cold, dead white screen. Sad.

Other email blunders that can range from off-putting to infuriating: including your email address in your email signature (redundant, anyone?), replying to an email with the request for a phone call (even though a call may be necessary, they probably used email in the first place for a reason), and the ever notorious Reply All button.

What are your email pet peeves?

Kim Schoetzow is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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