E-mail etiquette

Many of my columns over the years are stored on this blog and the reason I started doing that was to be able to point readers to the archive, and cunningly save myself the work of answering some of the questions that inevitably arise.


The only trouble is that people will ask questions I haven’t yet written answers to. The latest case in point was a query about the availability of classes in e-mail etiquette. I must confess I don’t know of any but it got me started thinking about what I would see as the E-mail Etiquette Essentials (EEEs).

The first and most important thing for me is to take an extra second or two to greet the addressee. In my life as a journalist and web publisher, I have received a ton of e-mail and nothing makes me lose interest as fast as someone who does not bother to greet me.

Brevity is good but leaping into a question without any acknowledgement is beyond terse. You wouldn’t walk up to a stranger in the street and ask them a question with out greeting them first; well maybe you would, but it’s not a good idea if you want a favourable response.

A second very important thing for me to be as polite as you would be when talking face-to-face with somebody. In fact, you probably need to be even more careful because the addressee can’t see you and pick up visual clues that you’re being funny or ironic.

Another thing is that people get lots of e-mail and it is only right not to increase the burden by passing on virus warnings, jokes you think funny, and appeals for charity or chain letters.

There’s nothing wrong in sharing a link to a website or a joke with a friend, but firing a message at your whole address book is wrong. This is especially true when the message contains large attachments that will clog up the addressee’s mail system and use up their bandwidth.

The next point is along the same lines and that is to be brief but, and listen to this well, not too brief. You may know what you mean and what action you want the other person to take, but you have to consider whether they will have the same understanding.

I’m going to suggest applying the granny test, which is to ask yourself, once the message is written, if your granny would understand it.

Re-reading messages before sending them is in any case essential and will give you the chance to correct grammar and spelling. A slapdash effort will not produce a favourable impression, especially when it comes to prospective employers and the like.

E-mail etiquette should also cover receiving e-mails and I’d say that here, the most important aspects are to read the whole e-mail and to try and answer all the questions it contains.

I sometimes think that people only read as far as the first question and are in such a hurry to get you off their backs, that they instantly fire off a response, ignoring the balance of your message.

The last few e-mail essentials are probably less etiquette and fall more under the heading of self-preservation. You have to bear in mind that e-mail is probably not ever totally private and, although made up of bits and bytes, may persist for a very long time.

There is no way to guarantee for example, that long-forgotten and embarrassing e-mails won’t surface again at the precise moment that you are running for Parliament, or applying for a raise at your place of employment.

It would probably be better never to put anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t write on the back of a postcard and file in the library.

The worst thing you could possibly do is to fire off e-mail while drunk or in anger. Your frank declaration of love (or hatred) for your boss could easily come back to bite you at the most inconvenient time.

These are a few items, which occurred to me as sensible rules for using e-mail, but there is a lot more on the subject on the Internet. One site I found was emailreplies.com and it has a long list of dos and don’ts.

All the rules are sensible and the site also stresses the need for businesses to have an e-mail policy to avoid problems, including litigation. It even provides a sample policy that can be used as a starting point.


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