E-Mail Etiquette: Mind Your P's and Q's

Last Updated Sep 22, 2008 3:45 PM EDT

649609158_07306a76cf_m.jpgAre you a rude, blathering, unprofessional idiot who screams at people and probably failed high-school English? Hopefully not. But if you aren't paying attention to how you craft your e-mails, maybe that's what your correspondence is saying about you.

Although e-mail has become the preferred form of communication for executives -- and overall is the top business-communication tool out there, surpassing even the telephone -- an astounding number of breaches of e-mail etiquette still occur.

We've all seen them in our inboxes: notes chock-full of misspellings, "cc" fields that rival phone books, the annoying overuse of emoticons and myriad other missteps.

Don't fall into these traps. If you don't want your e-mail communications to send the wrong message, pay attention to these tips.

  • Be smart about subjects. Use the subject line (never leave it blank) and make it meaningful and to the point. Most people are already struggling with inbox inundation, and no one wants to waste time guessing what "Check this out!" really means.
  • Activate your spellchecker. Run every e-mail through it before you hit "send." And while you're at it, make sure your grammar and punctuation are up to snuff as well. Nothing says "amateur hour" more than misspellings and bad English (or whatever other language you're using).
  • Don't shout. You've probably heard this a million times, but it bears repeating because it still happens: using capital letters in e-mail equates to shouting. So if you really want to convey shouting, go ahead and type "YOU'RE FIRED!" But if you just want to create emphasis, use those lovely little bold and italics features present in most e-mail editors. (Another good reason not to use all capital letters: It's harder to read.)
  • Use the "cc" field sparingly. Practice restraint when creating distribution lists, and cc only recipients who really need to be in the know. And if you're cc'd on an e-mail, don't "reply all" unless you're answering a direct question addressed to the group. Otherwise, comment back only to the original sender, who can then decide if the rest of the group should get clued in.
  • Double-check your recipient list. Helpful tools like autocomplete can wreak havoc if your complaint about your new project gets routed to your boss, Jane Smiley, instead of your best friend, Jane Smith. So before you hit send, scan the addresses to make sure your missive finds the right recipient. Or use some handy Outlook rules to defer sending e-mails and help avoid those "Uh oh!" moments.
  • Censor yourself. E-mail might feel casual and off-the-cuff, but all your remarks leave an easily followed electronic record -- so those notes can come back to haunt you. Think twice before bashing someone or recounting last weekend's bacchanal. A good rule of thumb for business correspondence: If you wouldn't say it publicly, don't say it at all, even to people outside the company. After all, a third of employers are reading workers' outbound e-mail.
  • Respond promptly. It's common courtesy to give someone a reply within 48 hours. If you need more time, send a quick note saying you're composing a lengthy or thoughtful response and let the sender know when to expect your reply. Conversely, hack your own subject lines to let people know if no response is required.
  • Think twice before using emoticons in e-mail. You know, those little smiley faces :-). While some people advocate the judicious use of emoticons to clarify meaning, others argue that your language and tone should be clear enough for comprehension and that smileys are juvenile and unprofessional. Usage can also depend on industry; a Web start-up might be a better environment for emoticons than an investment bank. When in doubt, leave 'em out.
  • Remember: It's e-mail, not a Halloween costume. Using garish colors, funky fonts, cutesy icons or any combination thereof is just plain annoying. Do you really want your e-mail to look like a ransom note? And skip the floral stationery or the Darth Vader screenshot next to your signature. Including images or over-formatting your e-mail could even get you labeled as spam.
  • Write actionable and concise messages. Above all, make your e-mail sensible. Get your details and action requirement (offering information? asking a question?) into the first sentence or two. Try to fit the entire message onto one screen with no scrolling by including only one or two points on a given topic. If you need more space, you can either visually break things up with bullet points, or literally break things up by sending additional e-mails on subsequent topic points.
(image by paul irish via Flickr, CC 2.0)
  • CC Holland

    CC Holland is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a number of national magazines. Online, she was a columnist for AnchorDesk.com and writes regularly for Law.com and BNET. On the other side of the journalism desk, she's been a managing editor for ZDNet, CNet, and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, where she earned an APTRA Best News Web Site award.