Every e-mail user has received at least one. You open your inbox to discover an offer from, say, the nephew or second cousin of a deceased king who is happy to give you a portion of millions of dollars if you will simply reply favorably to the request to help transfer funds to a bank account of your choice. The most creative and convincing one I’ve received expressed concern that I had recently passed away (I had not), and if this was not so then I needed to inform someone in Nigeria immediately so that my waiting inheritance didn’t go to my undeserving relatives. Such scam e-mails range from being badly written to artfully manipulative, and they often make their way past spam blockers and include subject lines such as “An Invitation,” “Humble Request,” or “Please Help!!”
Ironically, I have received e-mails from students containing these same subject lines, and the requests made within those e-mails were often less persuasive than the type outlined above, for one simple reason—the writer failed to demonstrate any sense of e-mail etiquette. My concern in such a case isn’t just that the writer has failed to communicate with me effectively; I speculate and worry that such bad practices will carry over into the student’s workplace, where daily and effective e-mail communication is vital to good job performance. On the job, you will literally be communicating via e-mail with scores of others with a simple touch of the Enter key, and whatever you send becomes, in a sense, part of a permanent record. Also, your e-mail will be one of potentially hundreds that your target reader receives in a week or even a single day, so you’ll want it to be read and noticed for the right reasons.
To ensure that you become an urbane and effective user of e-mail, some essential rules for e-mail etiquette follow.
First, Decide if E-Mail is the Best Form of Correspondence
Just because you received a request by e-mail doesn’t mean it’s the ideal medium for a response. Before initiating any e-mail correspondence, always consider whether a memo, letter, phone call, or face-to-face meeting is a better choice. Do not feel obliged to make trivial e-mail responses; in many cases there is no need to reply at all. In short, be certain to choose the best, most efficient mode of communication for the circumstances.
Use a Short, Definitive Subject Line
The value of a solid subject line is indisputable, especially since the subject line usually appears in the electronic mailbox right next to the sender’s name. It is tempting to write cryptic little teasers in your subject line (“Wow! Check This Out!!”) to get your reader’s attention, but this is always a bad practice, leading to the potential for your e-mail to be blocked as spam or simply trashed by the user. A much more civilized practice is to make your subject line concrete, informative, and respectful (“Electrical Engineering Student Requests Your Input”). Remember too that the subject line is part of the message’s permanent record, and it may be used by the receiver of your message to decide where to file your message for future use; choose the wording of your line accordingly.
Follow the Conventions for Effective Paragraph Writing
Even in electronic communication, the standards for good sentencing and paragraphing apply. Complete sentences grounded in subjects and verbs should be the rule, not the exception, and transition words should be placed at the beginnings of pivotal sentences and paragraphs. When you reply to direct questions that you copy into your text from an original file, quick, one-word replies might suffice just below the questions, but otherwise you should avoid fragmentary snippets of ideas in favor of complete sentences. Keep your paragraphs short to enhance readability, because scrolling is usually necessary to read even a short message, and the reader tends to race through the text hurriedly.
Write from the Top Down and Focus Your Content on a Single Subject
When writing e-mails, borrow the convention followed in newspaper articles of “writing from the top down,” putting the most important information at the top of the message so that it can’t be missed. Most users will decide whether or not to read your e-mail within seconds; therefore, the opening of your message must be designed to survive snap decisions. Use the opening statements as a quick summary of the most important content, and stick to a single subject throughout. If specific action is needed in response to the e-mail, note that such action is needed as part of purpose statement in the first paragraph, then use the rest of the e-mail to flesh out your reasoning. If you need to discuss multiple subjects, consider the use of multiple mailings with individual subject lines, or use a helpful table of contents and section heads within the e-mail to facilitate effective browsing.
If Necessary, use a Narrative Greeting to Specify Your Identity and Affiliation
Do not rely on your e-mail address or signature at the bottom of the document to be the sole indicators of your identity and affiliation. Even readers within your same organization—especially at a large university or corporation—may not automatically recognize your name. Therefore, use a first short paragraph as a narrative greeting to specify your identity, affiliation, and even to echo your subject line.
When Replying to Messages, Retain Only What is Needed to Give Context to Your Response
All e-mail software includes a response feature, which typically copies the sender’s message over into a new message box for you, fills out the “To,” “From,” and “Subject” lines, and precedes each line of the original message with a symbol such as “>.” However, for the sake of efficiency and clarity, you should cut the unnecessary lines of the sender’s original message and respond point-by-point to particular issues raised by the sender, positioning your new text just beneath the sender’s specific text that you are replying to. If you are simply responding to a single question that was asked amidst a lengthy paragraph, you might delete everything but the question so that your message is efficient and the context clear.
Learn how to Handle Attachments and Text Files
Attachments are one of the most common problems people have with e-mail correspondence, especially with the potential for viruses to be transferred via an attachment. Attachments are often courteous to include with e-mail messages, in part because they can be used to retain the appearance of an original file, including special characters and formatting, and they can be transferred immediately and for free. Your e-mail software dictates precisely how attachments are sent, but typically, in order to send an attachment, you drag and drop a representative icon, or use a pull-down menu to choose a desktop file. Some users prefer to receive attachments as text files in the body of the e-mail message itself, because text files are compact and electronically universal. Also, the form the attachment takes—whether in Word or as a pdf—determines how readily it can be opened from one computer to the next. If there are any ambiguities, the best practice is to communicate with the e-mail’s receiver about the nature of the attachment—the software used to create it, for instance—and if possible to include a text version of the attachment in the body of the e-mail message as well.
Be Sensitive to Who Might Read Your Message and How They Might Read It
Even more than letters or memos, e-mail is surprisingly portable. There are few laws specifically governing e-mail, and the mores of the workplace can easily lend themselves to electronic gossip. E-mail can be printed out, passed on electronically to other parties, saved on a disk, or readily altered by anyone who receives it. Therefore, it is unwise to discuss certain subjects by e-mail, especially those that are sensitive, confidential, or damaging. What was intended as a light-hearted editorial aside can lead to a chilly little war. Assume that any message you send could become part of a permanent record, and control the content of the message accordingly.
Cite Sources Accurately and Quote Individuals Faithfully
Even an e-mail message is worthy of accurate citation and quotation, especially if you are quoting an individual from whom you received a message. When doing so, copy and paste the person’s actual words rather than paraphrase them. However, also remember that standards of etiquette and good sense dictate that you should not quote another party’s words without that person’s implied or express permission. If you need to cite a source formally, as in a paper, be sure to give enough bibliographic information in the e-mail so that the receiver could track down the original source if needed.
Fit Your Tone to the Circumstances, Always Favoring the Courteous
Most circumstances allow for a blend of a personal and professional tone to your e-mail messages. Just as when you write a cover letter for a job, you want to maintain both a personal, amiable voice (often enhanced by the use of contractions and the first-person pronoun “I”) and professional content (characterized by examples and evidence that relate to the point you are making). However, be aware that some e-mail messages—say, those that may become part of a formal report or those likely to become part of some permanent record—demand a completely formal tone. Finally, if tone is an issue, when you want to be certain that a sentence you just wrote expresses the emotion you want, consider following the sentence with an emoticon (often called a “smiley”). Obviously, use emoticons with restraint and selectivity; sparse use is best.
Assess the Rank and Stature of your E-mail Receiver, and Compose Accordingly
Computer mailboxes give social equality to all messages as they arrive, which can seem to crumble hierarchies. Just as you can send a message to a long-time pal with a few simple taps of the keys, you can readily write to the CEO of a company or a university president just by discovering that person’s e-mail address. Nevertheless, always keep in mind the position of the person you are writing to, and be certain to honor the niceties and respect that should come with that position. Maintain this respect and a tactful tone in everything from the greeting you use to the connotations of the words you choose. Even if you are composing your message at 3:00 a.m. while barefoot and in your bathrobe, the tone of your message should suggest that you are seated in the recipient’s office, dressed for daylight and well-shod.
Flaming is responding to the e-mail of others in an opinionated, emotional manner, often in an inflammatory way. Even if you find the tone of another person’s e-mail especially combustible, a good rule of thumb is to wait 24 hours before replying, and be certain that any emotional response you do give will not be misinterpreted. Flaming begets more flaming and makes for bad diplomacy and ineffective communication.
Carefully Discern the Tone of Messages Sent by Others
We all develop skills that we can apply to face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations, including body language and voice inflection, but e-mail, despite its similarities to conversation, does not allow us to employ these skills. Remember that messages you receive will include nuances of style and tone, yet the intentions of the writer may be different from what you expect. In e-mail correspondence, people are not only more likely to write in an informal, relaxed tone, they are also more likely to editorialize (“What a silly thing to say.”), reply emotionally to individual phrases or sentences (“Are you damn sure this percentage is correct?”), and be curt or sarcastic (“Oh, right!”). Be certain to interpret the tone of others’ messages with discretion and, if necessary, with a bit of latitude.
Learn Key Acronyms Commonly Used in E-Mail Messages
Many users of e-mail save time—and appear relaxed and hip, too—by using acronyms in their correspondence. A list of some of the common ones follows:
BTW by the way F2F face-to-face FAQ frequently asked question FYI for your information JTYLTK just thought you’d like to know AFAIK as far as I know LOL laughing out loud OTOH on the other hand RFC request for comments TTYL talk to you later
Even though the use of such acronyms is common, keep in mind that your readers—especially international readers or new e-mail users—may not know what they mean, and in messages that will become part of a formal document these acronyms should be avoided.
Be Extremely Cautious with Listservs
Listservs, where a user sends copies of a single message to multiple readers, are handy because of the volume of people they can reach at once. However, be cautious about responding to messages that you receive through listservs; you may unintentionally send a message to every member of the list, leading to accidental, often irritated, audience members and wasted time. Instead of automatically replying to the message with the “reply” function, which may send a message to every person who received the original one, copy out the address of the person you wish to reply to, and write an individual message in a new window just to that person.
Familiarize Yourself with the Rules of Your Particular Electronic Community
Any electronic community, especially one that makes use of a listserv, should have implied or written rules of etiquette, often in an FAQ page. Usually, these rules will specify appropriate behaviors and procedures in relation to flaming, e-mail distribution, replying to messages, and frequently asked questions. The most mannerly users make it a point to learn the rules of their electronic community and follow them.
Proofread and Spell Check Your Work Carefully
Beware of the strong temptation to let the seeming informality of e-mail cause you to be sloppy about punctuation, spelling, and proofreading. I once had a student seeking my help on a paper write an e-mail to me, simply stating, “I have a paper dude on Thursday. OK?” (Unable to resist the temptation, I shot him back my smart-aleck reply: “That’s okay with me, dude.”) Your readers, especially your professors or supervisors, will likely be irritated by such errors in e-mail messages, in particular if they reflect a general sloppiness. Proofread and spell check the message text before sending it.
Beware of Silly or Offensive Signature Lines and Enigmatic Aliases
Most people create signatures or an electronic alias that is automatically attached to the end of any message you send. The standard contents of signatures include the sender’s name, affiliation, e-mail address, phone numbers, and the like. Many users also include their nicknames, favorite quirks, past-times, personal habits, quotations, thoughts for the day, and keyboard artwork. Signature lines and aliases by students tend to favor nicknames that smack of secret identities (“The Lurker,” “King of Pain”) or personal credos (“Long Live Luke Skywalker,” “Dave Matthews Rules”). You should obviously deactivate such signature lines when communicating with a professor or potential employer. Otherwise, you run the risk of irritating someone or even embarrassing yourself: Imagine a potential employer to whom you once e-mailed your resume forever thinking of you as “The Bedbug.”
Visit these websites for further e-mail writing tips: