Now obviously, you could be emailing about all sorts of different topics, and trying to communicate all sorts of different sentiment. So there’s a lot of leeway here, but there are still some rules.
First, let’s revisit our number one goal: reducing the burden of email, reducing the stress of email. That means “Keep it to the point” – concise and precise is your mantra.
When it comes to email, good etiquette is not about the fancy flourishes, it’s about respecting other people’s time.
When I was researching my recent book on digital etiquette, one of the people I spoke to was an American writer and podcaster Merlin Mann. He’s the person who coined the term Inbox Zero. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s basically a method for staying on top of your unread emails.
I won’t get into it here, but if you have an overfull inbox, it will change your life.
Anyway, when I asked him what he thought constituted good email etiquette, he said, “Assume that everyone you’re communicating with is smarter than you and cares more than you and is busier than you.” I think that’s excellent advice.
So no waffling. No jargon. No small talk. You do not have to ask after your recipient’s health every time you email them. That said, it is possible to be too concise. There’s a line where brevity crosses over into rudeness.
Have you ever received an email like this, perhaps from your boss or a superior at work? [OK.]
Or maybe one like this? [Received.]
Or like this? [Agree.]
The classic one-word email.
And if you think that’s bad, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is apparently known for forwarding messages from customers to his employees with not just one word, but one character: [?] the question mark.
Can you imagine receiving that email?
In these cases, brevity has almost certainly crossed the line into rudeness. No one is too busy to say please and thank you. Instead, these emails seem more like a power play.
Someone who emails like this is trying to show you how busy and important they are. And that’s not very polite.
Another problem with this is the lack of useful information. The email is short, but it’s not necessarily easy to deal with. What are you supposed to do with that?
As a recipient, are you expected to respond, to take some sort of action? It’s really not clear.
When you email, to reduce the burden of email, you should be putting all the relevant information and make sure it’s included the first time. Double emailing is a big faux pas.
As well as a lack of practical information, the problem with the super succinct email is the lack of emotional information. This is a major problem with email as with many forms of digital communication.
Because it’s conducted by text, it’s very difficult to convey sentiment. You don’t have any of the nonverbal cues that we use when we’re speaking to each other in real life to communicate your intent, like facial expressions, tone of voice or body language. And that makes it easy for email to be misconstrued.
Is that “Okay,” happy, sad, begrudging, angry? It can be hard to tell.
So when you write an email, read it back and check that it can’t be misinterpreted, and make use of all of the language tools that we do have to try to communicate our emotional intent. Even a simple punctuation mark can make a big difference.
Take a look at these. Which of these would you most like to receive and which would you least like to receive?
I’d most like to receive the second one. That’s a very enthusiastic thanks. I’d least like to receive the third one. There’s something so final seeming about that full stop, isn’t there?
And by the way, this is why I’m very pro-emoji in email, provided it’s not a very formal context.
Emoji are great at communicating sentiment; they’re basically a digital stand-in for facial expression, after all, and all the tools that we do have to make sure that we’re not misunderstood, we should be making use of.
Next, let’s get on to one part that so many people get wrong: The Sign-Off. I’ll keep this one simple.
There is a correct way to sign off an email. It is “Best wishes.” “Best” and “All the best” are also acceptable. Anything else? Sorry, no.
“Yours sincerely”? Too formal.
“Yours”? Too intimate.
“Cheers”? Okay for friends, but too casual for a professional context.