Sunday, January 10, 2010

Reader Request: E-mail Etiquette

Today's reader request is an anonymous one. It comes from a personal acquaintance who asked me not to share her name. It was sparked by a recent e-mail that she had received from an upset family member. Based on the way the e-mail was written and the fact that so many of us communicate via e-mail vs. the telephone, she asked me if I would write a post on e-mail etiquette.

We all spend a lot of time e-mailing and for many it has become the preferred method of communication. E-mail saves time and often avoids needless chatter in order to be more productive. However, it also is the cause of a lot of grief for many people as e-mail messages can be misconstrued, improperly conveyed or downright rude.

Here are a 12 rules to abide by when e-mailing your colleagues, clients,  friends and family:


1. Never E-mail Using All CAPS- This is read as 'yelling' and is considered very rude.  Treat an e-mail in the same way you would an actual letter. I thought everyone knew this one but I still get emails like this and it's usually just laziness, the person sending it couldn't be bothered to take the caps lock off.

2. Avoid Spamming- Don't spam people that don't know you very well with your "forward messages", be very selective about who you send these to if anyone at all.  What may be important and interesting to you may be incredibly annoying to someone else.

3. Don't 'Reply-all'- If you find yourself receiving an email and you would like to reply; do not reply to a group by hitting the 'reply all' button, rather reply to the individual sender only. This will save embarrassment on both ends and will not annoy all the other recipients or clog up their inbox. What starts off as one e-mail about a particular topic can easily turn into 20 if you get enough people fired up. This often happens with political or highly opinionated e-mails.

4. Say Their Name- When e-mailing anyone, it is considered disrespectful to begin an email without addressing the person you are writing to. If you are replying to a note, that is more acceptable, but addressing the person first by their name is proper. However that first initiated email must be addressed to whom you are sending it. It cannot begin with 'hi', 'hey' or your e-mail content right off the bat. Think of it as a phone call or conversation, you would say hello first before jumping to what you want to tell or ask the other person.

5. Use a Title- Always put a subject in the "subject" line so that the recipients can determine which e-mails to read first. Believe it or not, your e-mail may not be at the top of their 'importance' list. Other pressing e-mail may need to be attended to first so it's best to list it as 'low priority' and include a brief subject such as 'hi' or 'let's catch up!'. Avoid listing an e-mail as high priority unless it is in fact of the utmost importance to the recipient (not you).

6. Use Proper Spelling and Grammar!  With spell check and online dictionaries available today, there is absolutely no excuse for incorrect spelling and poor grammar. It just looks really unprofessional and sloppy regardless of who you are sending it to.

7. Do NOT Forward Chain letters, Junk mail or Warnings-This is annoying to anyone receiving it and a huge time waster! Many of these 'forwarded' emails could potentially contain viruses also, which I can assure your friends, family and colleagues will not appreciate.

8. Privacy is Appreciated- Use the 'Bcc' blind carbon copy feature to send a message to a large group of people who don't necessarily know each other. It protects their email information from others that may not know them and they'll appreciate your discretion too.

9. Use Proper Sentence Structure- Don't lump every sentence into one large paragraph, this is very difficult to read. Treat it as you would any other letter you would write. Make it easy to read. I have a friend who is notorious e-mailing me one really large paragraph which takes more time to read and reply to when wanting to comment or answer questions that were posed.

10. Signing Off- Use a signature that includes your contact information. This is most important with colleagues and or clients so they can easily get in touch with you. I know many people that use this format in their personal e-mail too and I find it helpful. Often they include their address or telephone number and it keeps me from having to look it up, when I need it.

11. Don't Be Confrontational- An e-mail should NEVER be the chosen format of communication when your emotions are running high and you are angry or frustrated with someone. You're liable to write something that you'll regret and can't take back, this is also the fastest way to start a fight.

What's worse is your poorly chosen words and angry 'rant' might then be forwarded to others to read. Regardless of the situation or how badly someone has hurt you, it is best to take some time to cool off, gather your thoughts, write them down and plan out how you'd like to communicate your message in the form of a phone call or face-to-face meeting. It's also never a good time to leave a voicemail message.

The people in your life deserve more than an e-mail and it is considered to be quite rude to send such e-mails to vent and get your point across.

12. Double Check-Take a moment to double check the recipients in your e-mail. Many people I know have sent out an e-mail to the wrong person. This is easy to do if you're typing in the first few letters of the person's name or email. Quite often another name will pop up. I've had this happen twice and both were completely harmless, one actually made it to my hair stylist in error. lol. You never know what information you may providing to the wrong people. Just be careful.

It goes without saying that anything that is confidential, private information should never be shared via e-mail. Personal bank account information, social security numbers and medical history should be avoided by e-mail. This way you can save yourself a lot of hassle and potentially even identity theft.

Want more etiquette posts? Here are a few more:

Have you had any personal experiences with those that are unaware of e-mail etiquette? Share with us, you can always leave an anonymous response.


  1. Great post! No matter how obvious most of these rules seem, it's always a good idea to refresh. Thanks again.

  2. What is proper etiquette on personal cards? We have a woman in our office who recently came to my cubical while I was away and read a birthday card on my desk that had personal info written inside from the sender. Then, my supervisor got flowers from her husband and before she could even read the card, this woman picked it up and read it out loud to everyone. Is that proper?

  3. @Anonymous-Thank you for your question! Anything that constitutes personal property such as your car, home, desk, handbag, or a personal greeting card are off limits to others, unless of course you decide to share something with them.

    In the case of your co-worker, she is definitely infringing on other people's personal property, reading the flower recipient's card before even she could herself is certainly not proper etiquette. It is considered to be quite rude and inappropriate.

    When I was working in a large office with a cubicle, I was very aware that although it was my desk, when I was gone for the day others could be potentially poking around. For anything of a personal nature such as a card, I would keep at home where you can truly enjoy it as to avoid prying eyes. I hope this helps! :)


  4. Great post, Karla! I recently found your blog, so forgive me for late comments :) I am often surprised that even in business environment, many people just do not follow e-mail etiquette, especially the "Hello your name" and "Best regards"...To shoot me a one-liner without these essentials, especially if this is a request or a first contact is absolutely unacceptable. I often contemplate "unclassy" reaction but don't act on it. :)


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