We’ve all experienced the frustration of receiving an email that’s been sent in a rush that isn’t clear. Because the sender didn’t take time to proof their email or read it back, now you need to reply and clarify their intent. This slows everyone down and what’s most annoying is it’s easily avoidable.
In this post, I’d like to share some simple and maybe even obvious email etiquette rules that are often broken.
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Before I get into my list, I’ll start by saying that most of these issues are the result of sending an email in a rush. And I get it. If you’re looking at an inbox with dozens or even hundreds of emails that need replies, it’s easy to rush your message while you get through your backlog. As mentioned, sending an email in a rush will often slow down the overall process if your message isn’t clear. And so if there’s one rule I could get everyone to follow it is to slow down and take your time when composing your message.
Don't use the subject line as your message
Using the subject line to send your message instead of using the email body is a big no-no.
The subject should be a short, descriptive statement or question that tells the reader what your email is about. When writing a subject, I often ask myself ‘How would I search for this email later’. This is a useful way of writing a subject that’s clear and concise.
If you find yourself writing a multi-sentence subject line, you’re using it wrong. Instead, use the body of the email to expand and include more detail. This is what it’s designed for.
Sending an email with a subject line and absolutely nobody can also come across as very blunt. Be careful doing this. Even if your message is very short and simple, use the body to provide detail or even a simple courtesy.
Don't email back to back messages
Have you ever received an email and then a few minutes later, another email adding more detail to the first email? And then, another email with even more detail after that?
What this tells the reader is that you’re rushing. It’s clear you wrote your email and hit send without proofreading, which is why you forgot certain details and need to send another email with extra information.
We’re all human and make mistakes and I’ve done this as well. I can forgive a back to back email but if I receive 3 or even 4 messages back to back it comes across as sloppy and can result in important details being missed.
Take your time and read back your message before hitting send. Check that you’ve included all the important information.
Don't change the subject line
Back in the day, each email and reply would show up as a separate line in your inbox. Now, most email clients use the subject line to group emails together into a thread. This means each line in your inbox is one conversation with a stream of messages.
When you reply and change the subject line this will result in a new thread being created. I’ve witnessed people doing weird things with their subject where they’ll add phrases like: “Thanks”, “One more thing:”, or “Update”, to the start of the subject. This means when they send the message, instead of having one thread with all replies inline, the updated subject line creates a new thread meaning you have to switch between multiple threads to track the conversation.
I can’t think of an appropriate reason why you’d ever need to change the subject line (feel free to challenge me in the comments below).
Make the subject clear ‘Following up on X' vs. ‘Following up'
I’ll often receive emails with vague subject lines like: “Asana” or “Following up”. Again, this comes across as lazy and rushed.
Repeating my rule from before, the subject line should make it clear what you’re emailing about. Think about what you or the reader would type into the search bar to find the message later. Because we often use search to find messages, having a clear subject line makes it quicker to find the conversation later (for both parties).
Instead of “Asana”, you can say “Help with Asana for ABC company”.
Instead of “Following up”, you can say: “Following up on X”.
Read your emails back. Take your time.
I mentioned this at the start but it’s worth repeating.
After you’ve composed your message, read it back. Check it for spelling and grammatical issues. A simple grammatical error can result in there being multiple interpretations of the message and as the receiver, it can even awkward replying to clarify the message intent.
Taking your time to write a clear, well-written email saves everyone time and makes you nicer to deal with. You don't want to be that guy where people think: “I hate getting emails from Paul”.
Avoid shorthand and acronyms (unless you know they know)
Acronyms and shorthand can help you to shave off a few seconds of typing. But is it worth it if the receiver doesn’t know what you’re referring to?
We shouldn’t assume that the recipient of a message knows the acronyms you’re using. Unless they’re a colleague or contact in the industry that knows what the acronym is.
Maybe this is obvious but I’ve received emails from people who use acronyms from their industry which I have no awareness of and it makes the receiver feel stupid.
Don’t write an essay (use video instead)
I LOVE receiving long emails…. Said no one ever!
We all know how painful it can be to receive a long email and adding “Please excuse the long email” does nothing to soften the blow.
I used to have a colleague who was notorious for sending long emails and I would inevitably avoid reading her messages for as long as possible.
Avoid over-explaining or justifying things. You also don't need to share your entire thought process leading up to a decision or question.
Watch your tone (you can't read emotions)
One of the biggest issues with email is when someone writes one thing but it’s interpreted differently due to the tone of the message. Tone is extremely important, especially with email and the written form.
Remember the basics like please and thank you.
Saying: “Add Paul to the meeting” comes across as blunt and demanding. Even if you didn’t intend it that way. Adding a ‘Please’ to the start goes a long way.
Sarcasm is usually lost over email. So if you’re going to make a joke, include an emoji or even add “(sarcastic)” to the message to make it really clear that you’re being sarcastic.
YOU SHOULD ALSO BE VERY CAUTIOUS WITH YOUR USE OF ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!
When you use all caps, you're basically shouting at someone. If you’re trying to emphasise something, use bold or underline instead.
Give people time to reply (24 hours minimum)
When starting a new email conversation, I don't expect a reply within 24 hours. This is the widely expected default for most people.
You should avoid emailing someone, then following up a few hours later asking for a reply. An email can easily be missed if the other person is busy in meetings or working on other things. If you need a more urgent response, other channels of communication like the phone or instant message should be used.
Do you need to ‘reply all'?
The best practice with email is to use the To: field to identify the primary recipient and the Cc: field to loop other people into the message who need to be aware of the conversation.
However, the mistake people often make when replying is to ‘Reply All’ when a simple reply directly to the sender is sufficient. A simple guideline is to ask yourself: “Does everyone need to see my reply?”. It’s okay to use Reply All if you are adding value to or ending a conversation.
You don't need to Reply All if you are saying ‘Thanks’ or adding a personal comment that’s not important. e.g. if you’ve received an email like “It’s Paul’s birthday” you can reply directly to Paul without replying “Happy birthday Paul” to everyone.
Keep fonts simple and clear
Finally, avoid being too fancy with your fonts, text size and colours.
Keep it simple. Nobody is going to look down on you for using black text in Arial or Times New Roman.
I recently received an email where the text size was very small and had to physically move closer to the screen to read the message.
So, what do you think of this list? Have I missed any obvious email etiquette mistakes? Please let me know in the comments below!