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  • Writer's picturePriya Sharma Shaikh

Email etiquette worth adopting

As much as it’s vilified, email is one of the most important and powerful tools of communication in the internet age. It has made it easier for all of us to communicate with each other. The biggest benefit has been the dramatically reduced turn-around times that we treat as default today. With the emergence of social media platforms and messenger services we now have more avenues to communicate with but, email still remains the number one choice for all professional interactions.

Even those with years of corporate experience sometimes betray a total lack of understanding of how to write a good email.

Honestly, it is alarming to see the widespread lack of etiquette when it comes to emailing. I have seen gross errors by senior business leaders resulting in snickering down the ranks. Sadly, this key skill set – and it is a skill to write a good mail – is often overlooked and underestimated. While writing a good email might not earn you accolades, writing a sub-standard one will surely stand out and mar you in the eyes of the recipients and colleagues.

Like in any form of communication, here too, you want a message delivered and understood. You need to know who you are writing to and what you are trying to communicate with the mail. While these two things change from email to email, there are some things that don’t. Here are some of those things that are good to remember while writing professional emails.

Use a proper email ID for all professional correspondence

If you want to be taken seriously, you ought to have a sober looking email ID. Crazyheart123 or Satanking are ID’s that will automatically mark you as unprofessional and perhaps, juvenile too. Unless that’s the side you want to expose to your clients or colleagues, it’s best to keep it hidden. It takes less than a minute to create a new email ID. Keep it simple and go with your full name and suffixes to it.

Some people want the ID to stand out and add a suffix to it. For example, if you are a reporter then you may add it at the end of your name and create an email ID. Thus, it could look like Not necessarily elegant but it is effective for sure.

Include a subject line

This is one of the cardinal sins of emailing. Most people don’t open emails without subjects. In today’s world where everyone is busy and running short of time, to expect them to open a subject-less email is too much. Subjects help people gauge the relevance and importance of emails and good subject lines are concise and eye-grabbing. Good subject lines also help people access these emails later on when they might want to have a re-look at it. It’s easier to search an email with relevant keywords in the subject line. Try searching for an email without a subject and you will see why it’s such a bad idea.

If the person you are emailing doesn’t know you, be sure to mention the name of the person who’s referenced you to them. Or if you’ve met them once and aren’t sure that they’ll remember you, reference the location or event in the subject.

It’s always better to create a new email trail for new issues or topics but if you have to use the old email trail, make sure you change the subject line when the topic under discussion changes.

Don’t use all caps. Neither in the subject line, nor in the mail body.

You can use it to highlight some important things but never write a mail in all caps. IT IS IRRITATING. See what I mean.

To and cc – How and why

Just like you don’t go around telling people things irrelevant to them, while emailing too, it is important to keep relevance in mind. Information should always be on a need-to-know basis unless you are looking to share the findings of a research or study or something that benefits everyone.

People you want to inform something or seek a response from are usually marked. Try to restrict the number of people you mark your email to.

Others who should know about the topic under discussion or may have something to contribute to it should be marked. Unless someone falls in these two heads, there’s no reason to mark them in the email.

I normally avoid bcc’ing people, because that is like a sly thing to do. But there are times when you want to inform people about a particular correspondence without exposing their names or email ID’s and in such an instance BCC is a good way of doing so. I usually forward the email I’ve just sent to those I want to keep informed.

Always mark the recipients only after you’ve written the email and gone through it once. You don’t want to accidentally send out the half-composed mail. It has happened to me on a couple of uncomfortable instances, so be careful!

Think before you ‘reply all’

Reply all’s on emails that go out to a large number of people for general info is the best example of stunted cognitive development. Read the email carefully and understand whether you are supposed to reply or not. If you are marked to then go ahead and do reply. But make sure that your reply is only to those who are relevant to the discussion at hand. Don’t assume that the person sending the email to you has marked the relevant people on it. If they’ve missed out someone, add them and if they’ve added people at random, that you think have no business being marked, remove them from your response.

Use professional salutations

Unless you are writing to friends, who are also colleagues, keep your salutations formal. Stick to Hi and Hello. Avoid Hey.

While the world is moving towards informality, a lot of people in across the world still prefer to be addressed as or by the full name i.e. Dear Mr. Priya Sharma Shaikh

Before you start addressing people by their first names, make sure they are cool with it. If there’s no way of knowing that, it’s better to be on the side of caution and use the formal salutation.

Mind your tone

Writing is tricky. When you are talking to someone, there’s what you are saying and then there’s how you are saying it. Your body language communicates as well, sometimes more powerfully than the words you use.

All this is missing when you write an email. It’s just the text and what the recipient brings to it. If the words aren’t clear and precise, they’ll find meanings in the text that you never intended. The tone of your email depends on the words you use.

For example, if the client replied to your proposal with a ridiculously low counter quote you may say any of the following, but notice the radically different emotions they convey.

  1. Your quote is too low for me to accept, OR

  2. Your quote is difficult for me to digest, OR

  3. I find your quote ridiculously low, OR

  4. I don’t see how you could’ve reverted with a quote like that, OR

  5. While we want to work with you, your quote makes it difficult for me to figure out how.

Of course, there could be many other ways of responding in such a situation. Each of the above responses are different ways of saying the same. But see how the tone varies indicating drastically different reactions.

Humour doesn’t necessarily translate on text, so, be careful when using it.

Especially when you are dealing with a diverse team from across the world. Different cultures treat humour differently and some do not appreciate it in professional settings. Many people have started using smileys in emails. There’s no standard here but if you are amongst old colleagues who know you well, you may very well use them. But with people whom you don’t know well and have only a professional correspondence with, it’s better to not use smileys at all.

Choose the right words, even if it means checking the thesaurus online. A little care and you can find words that reflect closely what you mean. Better spend time refining your mail than risk being misunderstood. Please make sure you use spell-check to weed out spelling mistakes before hitting the send button.

Keep it short and to the point

Long emails are the bane of corporate life. There are a dozen things to do at any point in time and reading long emails is never going to be at the top of anybody’s priority list. The objective of any email, as stated above, is either:

  1. To inform, and/ or

  2. To seek action

An email that does neither is redundant and best not sent. That means you want people to read them and reach the end. Get them there quickly.

You can improve the chances of an email being read by breaking it into bullet points. Bullets are easy on the eyes and enhance readability and therefore comprehension. No wonder listicles abound! J

Always start by establishing the purpose of the email. And end with a clear summary and the call-to-action that you seek.

If there’s a decision pending or a response sought, make it clear at the bottom. Don’t hesitate to highlight something important by making it bold or underlining it.

On long email trails make sure that you remove the irrelevant portions before responding. But be careful not to delete portions that might be useful for people to reference while making decisions.

The ending of an email

The sign off line should be indicative of your relationship and expectation of a call to action from the receiver e.g.

I look forward to receiving a favourable response from you or I eagerly await your approval to our proposal

Kindly also note the styles and punctuation with which you could close your email. Please do put a comma after the closing salutation:

With warm regards, or Best regards, or Yours truly,

Priya Sharma Shaikh

Use a professional signature block

A good signature makes you look good. Most email services have this facility and you can automate it easily. The signature should include your profession, role or designation, the name of your company, your contact details and any other professional links that add to your profile. This could be a link to your blog or some research paper you wrote recently or a presentation on Slideshare. Here’s a good article on what to include and what not to, in your email signature blocks.

Use ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ only if necessary

Another irritating habit people have is of setting all their emails as high priority. Know when to do it. And if you don’t know how, then learn it. When used sparingly and correctly, you can make people react the way you want them to. But over doing it leads to a ‘cry wolf’ reaction and people start ignoring your urgency. And I’m sure that’s not what you want. Respect people’s time and intellect and let them respond to your email on their time. If there’s a timeline you are racing against, mention that in the mail clearly so that they know in advance by when they need to respond.

Wait before you follow up

When following up on one of your earlier mails, make sure you space things out. Rush them and people will feel pushed and delay things and you risk getting delayed yourself. Set a schedule and let them know that you will be following up in a few days. 3 days is a good benchmark to check back in, but this might vary from situation to situation. Think through how much time it will take for the task to be completed and follow up accordingly. Needless to say, be polite while following up.

As you read and write more emails you will see what works and what doesn’t. You will also come across emails that will teach you a lot about how one should write a good email. Save them and revisit them every once in a while, to take from them whatever they can teach you.

There’s always something more to learn. In fact, make learning your motto for life!

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