E-mail etiquette: practical steps to elevate your e-mailing

The shape of a word facilitates quick and easy reading. Words written in capital letters lose the shape differentiation caused by the ascenders and descenders. As a result, words written in all caps take a great deal of effort to read.

by Laura Orsini — 

As ubiquitous as the telephone or Starbucks, e-mail is firmly entrenched as a regular, viable, necessary means of communication. For some, its importance has supplanted that of the telephone, in terms of staying in touch with family, friends, clients and colleagues. Yet even with our immersion in this e-mail age, amazing etiquette blunders punctuate the virtual communication landscape.

Remember the idiot who used to yell on his cell phone so the whole deli line could hear every word? It hardly happens anymore; nevertheless, we still encounter people who regularly use all caps in their e-mails and online postings. What’s the problem? Well, some will say it is rude and the equivalent of shouting. More importantly, though, it is really challenging to read.

Part of what makes words understandable to their readers is their shape. The fact is that the shape of a word, as much as its spelling, facilitates quick and easy reading. Words written exclusively in capital letters lose the shape differentiation caused by the ascenders (b, d, f, h, k, l, t) and descenders (g, j, p, q, y). As a result, words written in all caps take a great deal of effort to read.

Here are tips for utilizing e-mail that will improve your communication, and may actually improve your bottom line.

1. Identify yourself. The single most important aspect that determines whether someone will open an e-mail is not the subject line. It is the name of the sender. Use a personal identifier (e.g., Lois Lane) and not just your e-mail address in the “From” line on your messages. If your address is LO99233@yahoo.com, and your message comes through without your name attached, there is a decent chance it is going to get dumped.

2. Be judicious with the e-mail address you use. While we are on the subject of identifying yourself, let’s talk about the importance of identity. RollerSkateGurl@gmail.com might work if you are 14, or a professional roller derby jammer — in a business setting it lacks elegance, cache and professionalism.

3. Use the subject line. Second only to the sender’s name, the subject line is vital when it comes to determining whether or not to open an e-mail. “Hi” might be okay for your spouse or best friend, but it is not descriptive or helpful in a business situation.

4. Use a salutation to begin, and a signoff at the end of your message. A great deal of civility in communication has been lost because of the way we use e-mail. Rather than just launch right into your subject, a nicer way to create rapport and build your relationship with the recipient is by starting with a greeting and concluding with a formal ending. “Dear So-and-so” and “Hello,” as well as “Regards,” “Sincerely” or “Thanks,” all work well.

5. Use white space. Many people seem unaware of how important white space is to the ease of reading anything, including e-mail. White space refers to all the areas in your e-mail or document where there are no words (whether it is actually white or not). Two easy ways to create white space are by adding an extra return at the end of a paragraph and using bullets to create lists. Just make sure to break up the text so your readers have a place to rest their eyes between all the words.

6. Be deliberate with your messages. We are all so inundated with information these days. Remember to be respectful of your readers by making sure your e-mail is worth your time to write and worth your recipient’s time to read.

7. Know your reader. Some people are wedded to their inboxes; others check them once a week. If you have a question that needs an answer in the next five minutes, it probably won’t do you any good to e-mail a once-a-weeker. Make sure you know your reader before you hit “send.”

8. Know when it is time to pick up the phone. We have all been there, in that dreaded e-mail vortex. Four people are trying to arrange a meeting. One starts the thread; the next replies; then the third. Suddenly, the first has a change of plans and can’t make the original time; now the fourth chimes in. On and on it goes. Often it is easier to pick up the phone or walk to the person’s office.

9. Include the contents of the previous message in your response. Make sure your e-mails include the text of the message to which you are responding. Say you’ve been going back and forth for a few days getting several issues resolved. Finally you hear back: “That sounds great.” Only one problem. You have no idea which e-mail thread that person is referencing. Avoid this by including the original text with your response.

10. Double-check your spelling — especially the recipient’s name and e-mail address. How embarrassing to spell Doreen’s name as Foreen, especially if Doreen is your boss. Also, when typing an address for the first time — make sure you get it correct. The three little letters “inc” will make all the difference if you intend your message to go to support@AquaValleyInc.com but instead send it to support@AquaValley.com.

11. Double-check that you have the proper recipient. How problematic might it be if Jack Barnes were to receive the e-mail intended for Jake Barnett? If it’s sensitive material, this could cause a serious confidentiality breach.

12. Never hit “send” when you are angry. Always allow yourself a cool-down period of at least 24 hours before you send an e-mail in the heat of anger. You can’t take the words back; and once sent, you have now created a potentially permanent written record. E-mail is not the best way to resolve a tense situation.

13. Respond in a timely manner. Just as with a phone call, it is common courtesy to respond within 24 to 48 hours. If you need time to do research or determine an answer, at least reply to let the sender know you have received their message.

14. Carefully consider your spam filter decisions. If spam is causing you a monumental headache, you may want to set your filter on high, but not before you consider how difficult it may become for a potential client to reach you. Sometimes, it is the littlest thing that makes the difference between an opportunity and what might have been.


Laura Orsini is a professional editor, writer and marketing advisor who works primarily with self-publishing authors. www.wordsmadeeasy.com, Laura@wordsmadeeasy.com or 602-253-8463.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 26, Number 6, December 2007/January 2008.

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