Editor’s note: As an etiquette guide, this article is based on opinion. It’s goal is to create a standard.
Email has been a pervasive communication method for years but we still can’t seem to agree on the etiquette. That’s created a world where it’s acceptable to not only to be impolite but downright insulting. Drawing in part on its predecessors, handwritten letters, I intend to develop a viable code of etiquette.
Properly formatting an email shows that you gave due attention to it, and thus have the appropriate respect for the recipient.
The first email and first reply must be opened with an appropriate salutation, after that you can get right to the meat of the matter. What constitutes an appropriate salutation depends on the purpose of the email and your relationship with the recipient. In most cases, a more casual salutation like you would use in conversation is appropriate but salutations more like you would use in a letter are appropriate for more serious or affectionate emails.
The next portion is where you share any relevant background information. Don’t include anything irrelevant, you don’t want the recipient to feel like they have to sift through a tome to get the facts. The point is to demonstrate the relevance of the email and to make sure the recipient knows what they need to in order to formulate a response.
The next section is for all the really important stuff. Here’s where you’d make a request, impart news, or engage in conversation. Be polite and maintain the tone of the email, but otherwise you can do whatever you want.
End with some sort of signature or complimentary close. Whatever you use, it must include your name and the organisation you represent, if relevant. You can also include whatever other contact information you like as long as it’s appropriate for the recipient to use it to communicate with you in the future.
Addressing an Email
An email should only be addressed to multiple recipients if you need to send an identical message to all of them and it’s appropriate for them to all know who it’s being sent to. For example; if you’re planning a meeting then emailing all the participants together is appropriate, but if you’re applying for jobs then you need to send each employer a separate email. If there are people who don’t need to be a part of the conversation but do need to be included in the paper trail then you can CC them, but never use BCC.
The subject line should be a one line summary of the purpose of the email. Don’t use it to convince people to read the email, they should be doing that anyway. The subject line is best used to identify individual emails to check the information therein or follow up later.
It’s a sad commentary on our society that I need to explain this part, but I have to none the less. Every email must be read unless you already know that it doesn’t warrant a reply and contains no useful information, like all those Facebook emails.
Every email should also be given the benefit of the doubt. Always interpret the message in the best way possible. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve received a reply that made it quite clear that they read something negative into what I said, and it usually ended up being quite insulting.
There are only five cases where it’s not necessary to reply to a email;
- Replies to previous emails that make no request that warrants acknowledgement
- Harassing emails, such as any form of spam
- Insulting emails
- Emails containing only information where there’s no reason to believe the sender is expecting any acknowledgement
- The sender has asked that you not reply
Some sort of reply should be sent within eight working hours of the email being sent. An automated reply is acceptable only if you’re unable to read your email for a predetermined period and it includes when that period will end, at which point the clock resets. The first reply can be a simple acknowledgement if it also includes when a more thorough reply can be expected and why it’s being delayed.
Anything included in an email must be assumed to be confidential unless stated otherwise. Unless it’s quite clear who has a right to know, it cannot be shared with anyone.
That’s my suggestion for the etiquette we should apply to email. If you have any ideas of your own, feel free to share them in the comments.
For when to use email see: Choosing the Right Communication Method