5 Rules of Email Etiquette

The rise of email and other forms of instant electronic communication has eroded our respect for many of the conventions that we traditionally adhered to when writing paper letters and has introduced several new bad habits into the way we communicate with one another on a daily basis. Those of us who use mobile devices to communicate are especially susceptible to bad email habits because the size limitations of these devices encourage lazy habits and because mobile device users tend to be busy, always-on-the-go types.

In response to this phenomenon, I've decided to compile 5 rules of email etiquette.

Rule 1 - Respond to Every Part of an Email That Warrants a Response. In my personal opinion, the most egregious violation of email etiquette is the failure to respond to all parts of an email that warrant response. I cannot tell you how many times I have sent an email containing multiple questions (or statements warranting a response) only to have just the last question responded to. Here's an example:

Somebody,

I'm really not sure that I should come to the party tonight because I have a lot of work to do.

If I do decide to go, what should I bring? And what time does it start again?

Thanks,

Ben

This would be a grossly inadequate response to the above email because it only responds to the last question:

The party starts at 7:00pm.

This would be a proper response:

Ben,

If you don't think it's a good idea then don't go, but I think that everyone would enjoy seeing you.

I'm just bringing chips and salsa. Just bring some sort of snack food. The party starts at 7:00pm.

Somebody

Notice that not only does this response answer both questions that were asked in the original email, it also responds to the first statement, which expressed uncertainty regarding whether or not a particular course of action was appropriate. Just because something is not expressed in the form of a question does not mean that it does not warrant a response.

Failing to respond to all parts of an email is the virtual equivalent of smacking the sender in the face. It tells the sender that you either don't have time to adequately read the email or don't have time to adequately respond to the email. It tells the sender that you have a million other things that are more important than the sender's email. It also has the practical consequence of forcing the sender to ask the unanswered questions in another email or to simply make do with them being unanswered.

Rule 2 - Respond to Emails. Most of us probably do a fairly good job of responding to emails that reach a certain threshold of detail and complexity or that ask questions. For example, most of us would almost certainly respond to the sample email from Rule 1 in one form or another. But I've found that people are much worse when it comes to short emails. There are plenty of times that I'll send a friend an email that contains little more than a funny photograph I took, or a link to a story I think the recipient would enjoy, and never hear anything from the recipient.

Now, we all know people who constantly barrage our inboxes with links, YouTube videos, forwards, etc. This rule does not necessarily apply to these people. But if you receive a short email from someone who doesn't abuse email privileges, then it should be acknowledged. My mother sent me a funny picture of her cat the other day. I responded with a simple:

This is hilarious! Thanks for sending!

If someone sends you a link to a site you don't have time to read at the moment, something like this will suffice:

Thanks for the link. I'm swamped right now but will definitely check this out as soon as I can.

Something as quick as this tells the person who sent you the short email that you received it and appreciated it. Failing to take this simple step, by contrast, tells the sender that you're either indifferent to whatever he or she sent you or that you didn't particularly care for it. So, unless this is the message you want to send, send a quick response to the sender.

Rule 3 - Check your spelling. This one is fairly straightforward. When I receive an email that contains a million spelling mistakes I either think that the writer is not very smart or that the contents of the email weren't that important to the writer.

This rule requires not just using the correct letters but also extends to things like punctuation, capitalizing proper nouns, separating the content into paragraphs, and everything else that you learned when you were seven years old.

Following this rule not only shows the recipient of your email that you are minimally intelligent and that you care about what you're writing. It also lends clarity to the text.

[Note: allowances must of course be made for emails between persons that speak different languages].

Also, it is crucial not to solely rely on the spell check function of your email program. Yes, that's right, you actually need to read your email before sending it (a good idea anyway). The reason for this is that there are plenty of words that might pass a spell check but whose correctness is dependent on usage. For example, I constantly find myself accidentally mixing up "your" and "you're." Spell check won't catch mistakes like that. [Thanks to Richard for pointing this out (see his comment below)].

Rule 4 - Consider Using Traditional Letter Formatting. Unless the context requires otherwise, I usually try to maintain some degree of traditional formatting in my emails. Something like this:

Somebody,

Here's some text I'm writing to you about some subject.

Thanks,

Ben

As you can see, this email contains four parts: (1) the name of the intended recipient followed by a comma (or colon); (2) the body of the email; (3) some sort of concluding word or phrase; and (4) the sender's name. Most of us probably adhere to this format more or less when we compose an original email but usually don't bother when responding to an email.

Let's say that you send an email to a friend asking what she thought about a book you loaned her and received the following response:

It was okay.

There's nothing wrong with this per se. It does answer the question after all. But if any substantial period of time has elapsed between the time you sent the email and when you receive the response, you're going to have to hope that your original email's text is included in your friend's reply and are then going to have to reread your previous email to figure out what you were even talking about. This may not be that cumbersome if the previous correspondence consists of only a few exchanges, but for email exchanges of, say, three or more emails, this process can quickly become fairly laborious. The following is preferable:

Ben,

I thought the book was okay. I liked [whatever] but didn't really think that [whatever] was [whatever]...

Thanks again for loaning it to me,

Someone

This response is complete in and of itself. It is clear what the the sender is talking about and the recipient won't have to go hunting through the previous emails to remember what was being discussed. It has the added benefit of granting the sender the opportunity to thank me for loaning the book to her.

On a more conceptual level, formatting is important because it too can communicate messages to the reader. By failing to format your emails, you miss an opportunity to communicate more effectively with the recipient and your message becomes that much closer to being a string of 1s and 0s.

Rule 5 - Only Use Internetspeak When Appropriate. When you're applying for a job, you don't use slang in your cover letter. Similarly, don't use Internetspeak abbreviations (e.g., IMHO, LOL) unless doing so will be consistent with the tone of your email and its audience.

Conclusion

None of these rules is ironclad, but I believe that they do begin to address some of the worst email behaviors. Their chief concerns are respect for the reader and effective communication, neither of which should be forgotten regardless of whether one emails from a mobile phone or a desktop or laptop.

I do agree that people are forgetting their grammar rules but then again, I doubt the issue was ever addressed in school. Maybe it's about time kids were taught proper email courtesy in schools, just like they were with letter writing.

Peter: I'm glad you enjoyed my post. I'll have to think about text message etiquette and will post here once I've thought it over a bit.

Richard: Excellent point! You're exactly right. Thanks for pointing this out (I'm going to edit the original post to reflect your suggestion).

Tariq: Good suggestion. Who knows, they may already be doing this(?). If not, I agree that it needs to be part of the curriculum.

Gee, thanks Mom. I credit you for making me attend that manners class when I was like 6 years old.

With all due respect I think I'm going to have to decline your request to put Sarah's picture on the blog. In order to get it to fit I would have to shrink it so much that it wouldn't really do justice to her.

Aunt Sandy! It's great to hear from you! And actually that picture is quite old (although I have thankfully moved beyond straight-bang haircuts for good!). Perhaps I'll upload a more recent one...

I agree with your criticism with regard to personal emails (between friends, family, close colleagues, etc.), but I still think that it's good to follow these rules in a professional setting or when one doesn't know the recipient.

Thanks for posting and it's great to hear from you!

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