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7 tips for improving email etiquette

iStock photo

iStock photo

According to 2009 research from international consulting firm Deloitte, the average office worker sends around 160 emails and checks his or her inbox more than 50 times per day. If practice really made perfect, we’d all be Olympic gold medal-winning emailers by now.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I still hit the “send” button in the exact instant that I spot a typo, and I still get emails that give me the funny feeling that a co-worker didn’t mean to hit “reply all.”

Despite tons of practice, it seems that email etiquette is still something most of us are working to perfect.

So, in honor of National Email Week (what, that wasn’t on your Outlook calendar?) we talked to a few communications experts about proper email etiquette. Here’s what they had to say about what makes a good email, and what gets your message sent to the trash folder.


Be concise: “Email is intended for short, informational messages,” says Jodi R. R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, Mass., and author of “From Clueless to Class Act: Manners for the Modern Woman.” “Keep in mind that with some email systems it is possible for the recipient to read just the first three lines of your message without ever opening the email. Make the first couple lines count.”

Double check: “Never, ever skip the spell check and double check the word is not changed to a word you did not intend to use,” says Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas, a company that specializes in corporate etiquette training. “Spell check is not foolproof if it picks up a word that it ‘thinks’ you mean.”

While you’re rereading your email, also take a second to ensure that the correct person’s name is in the “To” field. It can be easy to accidentally type in the wrong name, especially with email programs that auto-complete email addresses when you start typing.

Be professional: “Treat email like a professional correspondence, because it is. It’s the only communication most executives see and you will be judged accordingly,” Gottsman says. That means spelling out words in their entirety (no “U,” “LOL,” etc.), using correct capitalization and including an email signature with your contact information.

Professionalism should extend to the style and formatting of your email as well. When choosing fonts and creating an email signature, use the “Phyllis” test. Anything you think Phyllis from “The Office” might include in her emails should be avoided in yours. This includes cutesy fonts like Comic Sans, email wallpaper, and signatures with flash animation or your favorite quote.

Be pleasant: You probably know from experience that it’s hard to tell whether someone is being sarcastic or serious via email. “Watch not only what you say, but how you say it,” Smith says. “Using all capital letters is considered yelling.” The same goes for sentences with excessive punctuation — ending a sentence with “!!!” or “???” will just make you seem angry.

Similarly, suggests Robby Slaughter, owner of Slaughter Development LLC, a business productivity firm based in Indianapolis, start your email off with a friendly greeting, not an order. “The word ‘hello’ followed by the name of the recipient does wonders in ensuring your email is well received and actually read,” he says.


Avoid face-to-face conversation: Sometimes, it’s just easier and more effective to walk into your boss’s office, or pick up the phone and call your customer. “Remember this rule: Email is more for coordination than it is for communication,” Slaughter says. If you have a lengthy project or proposal to discuss, schedule time to talk to the person face-to-face or over the phone.

Similarly, email shouldn’t be used to resolve conflict, or as a method of avoiding confrontation. “Don’t hide behind your computer,” Smith says. “Don’t use email as a shield to avoid having a conversation or a face-to-face interaction.”

Copy your whole team: “This is like scheduling a pickup from two taxi companies ‘just in case’– you’re wasting almost everyone’s time, and most of the recipients will assume that someone else will answer,” Slaughter says.

Send an email when you’re angry: In the heat of an angry moment, it is way too easy to fire off a scathing email full of things you’d never actually say to someone’s face. “Wait until you cool off before putting something down in writing,” Gottsman says.

While most of the experts we heard from agreed on the above points, there were some divided opinions on a couple of popular email practices, notably:

-- The use of emoticons in work emails. Some experts said they were OK, because they helped signify the tone of the email (i.e. putting a at the end of the sentence to tell the recipient you are joking), while others thought they were simply unprofessional.

-- Whether or not the “Sent from my BlackBerry” or “Sent from my iPhone” should be kept at the bottom of emails from wireless devices. Some argued that it should be there, to alert the recipient that formatting issues or typos are a result of emailing on the go, while others said it should be removed, because it’s a dead giveaway to clients and colleagues that you’re not in the office.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments section, below.

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