Email etiquette: peers, professors and professionals

Email etiquette: peers, professors and professionals

Summary: How can you email your employers, peers and professors professionally?

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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The Generation Y. Known for smiley faces, overly-enthusiastic use of exclamation marks, and doubtlessly the odd typographic mistake or two.

It is easy for a less formal style of communication to creep into emails that should reflect a more professional image, however, it can make an individual look unprofessional or lazy -- and may confuse the recipient if they cannot 'translate' slang or text-speak.

How can you impress a future employer, professor or professional peer through email, and create a good impression?

1. Stick to a professional email address.

I'm afraid 'vampiregurl20xxx@hotmail.com', 'spoiledprincezzz@gmail.com' and 'surfingstud909@aol.com' just don't cut it anymore. If you cannot sign up for an email address that displays your full name, consider adding the initial of a middle name, or shortening your first name as appropriate.

2. Greet the recipient, properly.

Hi!, Hey You! or Yo! should be kept in between conversations with friends. If you are contacting someone for the first time, don't misspell the person's name. Check any documentation you have to find the correct spelling, or look it up online.

Use the correct salutation:

  • In business, if you are addressing a woman, 'Ms.' is appropriate -- marital status is irrelevant in this kind of communication.
  • If someone has a doctoral or medical degree, 'Dr. [Last name] is correct in email etiquette.
  • If no name is supplied, 'Dear Sir or Madam' is always acceptable. If you know the gender of the recipient, alter this as appropriate.

3. Capitalize and punctuate

If your emails are all written in lower-case and contain no capitalization or punctuation, you simply look lazy. Take a brief moment and read through the email before you send it, and fix any glaring errors. A message littered with mistakes will not be taken seriously.

4. Stay clear of emoticons, unless they do it first.

There are cases where the recipient is happy to use a less formal method of communication -- if they use formatting such as emoticons, then it is possible (although not necessarily advisable) for you to do so. However, if in business, stay clear anyway.

5. Be gentle with exclamation marks.

Would you SCREAM EVERY SENTENCE at your professor during a lecture? Or bellow your answers in a job interview? It's rude, unnecessary and an eyesore. There's no point releasing the 'Caps of Fury' if you're trying to make a good impression.

6. Use standard formatting practices.

The cute kitten animation tagged on to your signature or the 14-pt Comic Sans font may be your personal favorite, but it is not appropriate in formal settings. Stick with a readable size, color and a standard font.

7. Quotes from movies or famous people in your signature are asking for disaster.

Go nuts on your Tumblr account, but leave email communications out of trying to enlighten the populace with profound quotes.

8. Reflect your recipient's style.

This technique is also used in body language studies -- by 'reflecting' the person you are communicating with, you are more likely to receive a favorable response. If the other person favors email summaries or shorthand notifications in the subject line, do it. If they use a particular form of email etiquette, take note.

9. Stay the need for 'translation'.

A properly worded email that is concise and easy to understand will probably receive a response more promptly than an email that requires effort. The less effort required to reply, the quicker it may be. Essays or poorly-worded messages will get you nowhere -- especially in a world where inboxes are flooded on a daily basis.

10. Suitability

Be aware that email conversations may not necessarily remain private, and can be exchanged, forwarded, or taken from servers. Anything that can be considered libelous, defamatory, offensive or racist -- steer clear.

It is not uncommon for staff to be fired for the contents of an email, and in the case of students, you may find yourself attending a disciplinary hearing.

11. Do not attach unnecessarily files.

Sending large attachments that are unwanted can annoy your recipient, and for some servers may cause system crashes or cause emails to bounce back. If you have to send a large file, compress it first using .zip or .rar.

12. Add a disclaimer to your emails.

In order to protect yourself as much as possible, include a legal disclaimer at the bottom. An example of a common business-based disclaimer is:

This email and any attachments to it may be confidential and are intended solely for the use of the individual to whom it is addressed. Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of [business name].

If you are not the intended recipient of this email, you must neither take any action based upon its contents, nor copy or show it to anyone.

13. Think 'text' rather than 'novel'.

When there are hundreds of emails left unread in your inbox, half of which are emblazoned with irritating 'URGENT' or 'IMPORTANT' subject tags, if you open an email to find it is approaching the length of the last novel you read, it will most likely stay there for some time.

If the email has to be long, for example a copy of a report, then include 'Long' in the subject heading to give the recipient fair warning.

14. Use email copy functions courteously.

Directly instilling a CC copy shows more confidence than a covert BCC move to prevent others from seeing multiple viewers; and it may just come back to haunt you later. However, BCC is suitable if an email is being sent from a large distribution list.

15. When you use text-based communication, tone is lost.

A phrase or joke that may be hilarious face-to-face does not necessarily translate well into text. Sarcasm or irony can be taken the wrong way, so be careful -- especially if it can be misconstrued as offensive.

16. Use the subject field to accurately reflect the email's content.

It is not a PR campaign, and you are not vying for click-through rates. Make the subject header relevant and save both yourself and the respondent time.

17. Close an email properly

If in doubt, copy what your recipient has already used. If you are sending an email for the first time, some choices are:

  • Best Regards,
  • Cordially,
  • Best Wishes,
  • Many Thanks,
  • Sincerely,
  • Regards,
  • Thank You,

18. Include a relevant signature.

Make sure you can be contacted easily, and if you are going to be on leave for specific dates, include this information in you signature.

A relevant signature should include your name, mailing address, email address, phone number, and if you wish -- social media accounts such as a Twitter or LinkedIn profile.

19. Avoid graphics and backgrounds in email.

These are unnecessary, increase an email's size, hog memory and can make messages difficult to read. Animations are an absolute red-light disaster zone, as well as often not user friendly for disabled viewers.

20. Final thoughts:

  • Email is a written form of communication -- and is not private or confidential. Write nothing that may cause you problems later on if it were made public.
  • Keep copies of your emails, both sent and received.
  • You are reflecting both yourself and potentially a business or institution when you send a message. Keep this in mind and make sure everything is to the point, clear and concise.
  • It takes very little effort to use a spellchecker -- don't forget.
  • Remember to show appreciation when you receive responses. Not only does it mean you value someone's time, but a word of thanks can go a long way.

Image credit: James Cridland

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Topic: Tech Industry

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21 comments
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  • For making me laugh on a Monday morning!

    Okay, it mightn't be that funny but someone who's stressed at his desk, reading the 'SCREAM EVERY SENTENCE at your professor during a lecture' comment made me laugh out loud.

    Even as our language changes and evolves I believe that certain protocols to emails need to be maintained - after all an email can be your first contact with a potential client and text is so easily open to misinterpretation. Human interaction works best in person and as we isolate ourselves more behind e-comm there is less and less 'information' being shared. At least telephone chats carry the intonations and sound of amusement/displeasure/seriousness. In emails you end up with smileys, exclamations and the like to try and frame your sentences with some kind of emotional support.

    As for correct punctuation and spelling, I'm keen to receive well formatted emails as it makes me feel that the sender is competent, conscientious and, without trying to sound snobby, intelligent. Of course the content of the message is the most important but it costs nothing to make it easy to read.
    gregcoltman
  • I've long felt that...

    for some reason, the introduction of e-mail has resulted in the deterioration of proper writing skills. It's one thing to be informal when you're exchanging messages with your friends and family, but that quickly crossed over to the business world once e-mail became common back in the 90s. The whole social networking phenomenon has made it even worse, as now people write like every written communication format is restricted to 140 characters or less and the recipient is their "BFF."

    I guess the unintended benefit is that when I receive a well written e-mail from a vendor (or prospective vendor), it helps to eliminate the need for thought from mailbox maintenance as 99% of such messages are SPAM drafted by a marketing department, even if they're from a rep I know.

    It also amazes me how so many "professionals" don't think consider perception when using a personal e-mail address for professional purposes. If you're applying for a job, you may want to sign up for a boring old gmail/hotmail account that's just some variation of your first and last name instead of the nickname or handle you use (e.g. bigdaddyjoe@gmail.com). Sorry, but it's hard for me to take a candidate seriously when you're using the nickname all of your frat brothers chanted while you did keg stands.
    TroyMcClure
  • Ref #12 - Disclaimer

    "may be confidential"

    All the receipient has to say is that they thought it was not confidential and they are off the hook. Only use a disclaimer when the information is in fact confidential and state it:

    "The information in this e-mail and any attachments are confidential ....."
    7mgte
  • There are many more things the author could have added

    Like - only use "reply to all" very sparingly if at all; and do not request delivery and read receipts. Maybe they don't often apply to emails from your boss, but they are still worth remembering!
    jonc2011
  • Excellent treatment on this topic

    Charlie, yours was one of the very best blog posts I've read in a long, long time. And one that's needed, by workers/students of all ages, not just younger ones who maybe "don't know better" (due to having grown up with social media). It may seem old-fashioned to follow these rules, but the rules have evolved over a very long period of time because they are USEFUL.Thanks for your excellent thought and writing.
    kellycarter
  • Observations

    3. Capitalize and punctuate -- There are people who don't actually know how to do either.

    6. Use standard formatting practices. -- Cute kitten animations are always appropriate.

    11. Do not attach unnecessarily files. -- I am very uncomfortable with attachments, and doubly so if they are compressed.
    Bill4
  • Proper use of the subject line.

    The subject line should indicate the content of the email and should not be used as part of the content itself. I have often received emails in a business setting where the majority (or all) of the email content is in the subject line. This is a pet peeve of mine and indicates to me a certain level of ignorance or laziness. Now, there are some people who send these types of emails whom I actually know personally and do respect, which makes it all the more frustrating to receive these emails. You don't see legal documents or professional articles written in this way.
    AGBowlin
  • The death of English etiquette in E-mail.

    I am in full agreement with kellycarter, piousmonk and Bill4. I am very put off by the folks who start the E-mail "hi...". Am I reading a grade school letter or a professional???s communication?

    Please do not insult the experienced English users. I see too many useage errors in a Professional environment.
    morleyfl@...
  • A few comments:

    For "professors," the first item might be "Use your school e-mail address." Some institutions forbid faculty from engaging with students at any email but their official school address (for privacy reasons, among others).

    Under #5, the heading addresses only exclamation marks but the body addresses only all-caps; I'd modify the body to say something like "Do not use all-caps or exclamation points (especially more than one per sentence) if you want your e-mail to be taken seriously."

    #11: Do you mean "unnecessary" or "unnecessarily large" or both? (I'd go with both; that is, I would avoid sending either.)

    I also think #12, #17, and #18 could be lumped together; "Make your ending appropriate for the e-mail."
    jgeorge12001@...
  • Legality of No. 12

    Just a cautionary note: I believe the jury is still out on the enforceablility of an attempt to limit redistribution or use, particularly for uses which do not violate copyright law. I, at least, am unaware of a case where reading and/or acting on an incorrectly received email resulted in any liability per se simply due to a legal signature. Perhaps there have been recently?
    Mr. Copro Encephalic to You
  • Subject line and proper word choice

    AGBowlin is absolutely correct about not using a subject line to convey information. Some people set up e-mail so that blank messages go directly to the bin (I do), so putting information only in a subject line results in it not being received at all. It costs nothing but a minute or two to put "Leaving" in a subject line, with a single line in a message saying "I'm leaving now, see you soon." and the message is now clear.

    If the message has to do with a date (or telephone number or anything critical), and the date is put in the subject line, [b]repeat[/b] it in the body. Not everyone reads or sees (depending on e-mail set up) subject lines.

    As for the comment about quotations in the blog -- please note that it is "quotations" not "quote" as was used. "Quote" is a verb, not a noun. While language does change, this is one error which drives me up a wall -- right up there with "alternate" and "alternative"; "lay" and "lie"; and "select" and "selected"; not to mention many others. That latter is especially common in advertisements where "select" is misused to mean "selected" items.

    Get the language, and, as indicated above in the blog, the formatting, correct and the message will be both readable and understood.
    RedMtl
  • My list...

    Also includes:

    Never send an e-mail while you're still angry. Cool off, then type it.

    Always re-read the e-mail and the list of recipients 3 times before hitting send.
    Badgered
    • Never send an e-mail while your still angry...

      Good advice, to which I'd like to add (more importantly):

      Never send an email when you're drunk.

      ... the witty remarks that seem so funny and apt after a beer or two, or never quite so witty or funny when you've sobered up!
      simon@...
    • Send Delay

      I have an Outlook rule set up to delay sending emails for 1 minute. This has saved me many times by allowing me to cool off or remove inappropriate recipients.
      robcarrol@...
  • Top vs bottom posting

    Top posting makes me crazy. To read the answer before the question is another abuse of the English language.
    wayward4now
  • Disclaimer invalid

    These disclaimers are idiotic in the extreme.

    I agree with the part "Any views or opinions expressed ... [business name]."

    But that's it.

    "This email and any attachments to it may be confidential and are intended solely for the use of the individual to whom it is addressed" - doesn't hold water. Vague things like 'may be confidential' are just that, way too vague. Everybody is of the mistaken opinion that they have some sort of attorney-client priviledge in their communications. They don't, unless they are in fact sending this particular email to their attorney, and even then, if they accidentally send it to the opposing attorney, it may very well be used by that opposing attorney. Read http://law.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1813&context=expresso

    "If you are not the intended recipient of this email, you must neither take any action based upon its contents, nor copy or show it to anyone." Fugetaboutit. You have no contract with the party receiving the email, and no ability to enforce this or any other contract on them. Appending this is a pure waste of time.
    igmac
    • Disclaimer invalid

      Igmac is exactly right. Although "idiotic" might not be strong enough. "Usless" would also be a word I would apply.

      These disclaimers are completely unenforceable, and therefore completely useless.

      Don't bother.
      jquinnjr
  • Acknowledge receipt of an e-mail

    One e-mail etiquette problem I see often in the domain where I work, which includes a lot of professors, is leaving the sound of crickets when a response is called for.

    I assume that everyone is busy, and I don't advocate that we fill up each others' inboxes, but when I receive an e-mail from someone that contains critical information I need to have or that calls on me to undertake some action, if I can't respond immediately, I try to reply to the e-mail acknowledging that I've received it. We forget sometimes that e-mails can get lost in a variety of ways. But people need to know that their message has been received, and ten seconds of effort to shoot off a quick "Thanks. Got it." with a possible timeframe for action can alleviate worry.
    daveklein
  • E-mail etiquette

    Charlie, I agree, and uses these attributes daily in my e-mail correspondence.

    I have to wonder, though, how can someone have "doubtlessly the odd typographic mistake or two" when they're using spelling and grammar checkers.
    bb_apptix
  • Email sound

    Not sure about your sound of crickets daveklein, but email sound can be a menace in an open office. I changed mine (in Eudora) to "bomb" but that was worse, and have now settle for a nice little tinkling sound when mails have all downloaded.
    jonc2011