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Email etiquette: rights and wrongs


By Anna Post

Email: how you compose an email will reflect on your professionalism.

Email: how you compose an email will reflect on your professionalism. Photo: Rob Homer

Whether you think email communication is good or bad, it's here to stay, and how you compose an email speaks to your professionalism, reliability, and personal image. So here are some tips on how to manage this vital tool.


Formality used to be a given in business correspondence, but no longer. Follow the same pattern in an email that you would face-to-face if your new client has been introduced to you as Brian, or if that is what the rest of the team calls him, you don't need to revert to Mr Carson in a follow-up email. But the reverse also applies: until asked to call him Brian, stick with Mr Carson. When in doubt, defer to the formal: use Mr for men, Ms for women. It's far easier to respond to, "Oh, call me Kara," than, "Actually, it's Ms. Pomerantz."

Hello and Goodbye

Most emails are only a few lines at most, but the recipient is still worth a salutation and closing: "Dear" remains both standard and formal, "Hello" is professional and friendly, "Hi" is casual and conversational. Avoid "Hey"; it may sound jaunty to some, but to others it can read as a verbal jab. There are a multitude of options for closings. When in doubt "Sincerely" or "Regards" are both safe bets. Other variations on this theme include, "Best regards," "Kind regards," "Best wishes," "Sincere regards," "Thank you," and "Many thanks," to name just a few. More casually are, "Take care" and "Talk soon."

When an email chain deepens, it's fine to drop greetings, as the tone is now a back-and-forth conversation.

Tricks of the Trade

 To smiley or not to smiley, that is the question. Unless you are absolutely certain an emoticon will be received well, avoid using them. To unsympathetic eyes, or simply to someone who doesn't know you well, they look juvenile in business. The same applies to the use of abbreviations, such as "ttyl" ("talk to you later") and "lmk" ("let me know"). Shorthand isn't wrong; but it only serves you and your professionalism well if received well (or at least with notice), so consider your audience first. The use of all caps always denotes shouting, so unless you are shouting congratulations, get calm and pick up the phone or visit a colleague to discuss differences of opinion.

Signing Off

Signature blocks can be helpful, especially when they contain the basic alternate means of contact: mailing address, telephone, mobile or fax numbers, and perhaps a website. Signature blocks run the risk of becoming weighty anchors at the bottom of a message when they include too many promotional links, websites, or social networking invitations. Keep inspiration quotes for personal email accounts.

Second Thoughts

Quickly typed and sent in the blink of a nanosecond, it's understandable why emails can be rife with typos, from the commonplace to the funny to the mortifying. An advertisement aired during last month's Super Bowl that played on the panic of an employee who thought he had sent an inappropriate message to his whole company. Clearly, it would be best to do a read-through before sending, and not to rely too heavily on the spelling and grammar check features, as they can let you down in crucial moments. The attention paid to drafting a message says something beyond the words on the screen. It speaks to your professional image and your attention to detail.

Why Highlight a Negative?

A preset message stating, "Sent from my iPhone/BlackBerry, etc." is fine to use. But refrain from prefacing it with the recent variation, "Please excuse any mistakes in this message. It was sent from my iPhone/BlackBerry, etc." The very fact these devices are mobile means messages are often typed while we're on the dash, and small keyboards and anticipated text features, which can turn a run-of-the-mill email into a game of Madlibs, don't help. Still, why draw attention to the fact you didn't think the recipient was worth rereading the message for? Worse, if there weren't any mistakes, you've now implied that often there are -- and that you're not responsible for them, when in fact you are.

Going Offline

Lastly, there comes a time in every inbox when reply or forward won't suffice. If a conversation is going downhill fast, pick up the phone or set an in-person meeting. Research has shown we default to a negative interpretation of others' words when we don't have their tone of voice or body language to make their meaning clear.

Used well, email is a tremendous time-saver. But some things are worth spending time on. Handwritten thank you notes are still a must for gifts, big meals, and important opportunities or favours, and show you spent time reflecting on their value to you. That's a message worth sending.


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  • In what profession do people call each other "Mr" and "Mrs" - I've never come across it unless in formal letters (public submissions and that kind of thing)??

    Date and time
    February 23, 2011, 12:08PM
    • Great article...just a question to everyone out anyone else annoyed by the overuse of... and .... and more .... in emails these days?

      The ellipsis is driving me crazy. Just use a full stop!

      Rant over. Thanks for listening ;)

      Date and time
      February 23, 2011, 12:15PM
      • Using "Hey" as a greeting is fine.

        Date and time
        February 23, 2011, 12:26PM
        • Sign of the times, if an article like this has to be published.

          I must admit, some people treat e-mail as if it were instant messenger, just one liners, predominately more so at work.
          I find it rude.
          It doesn't take too long for those extra keystrokes.
          Courtesy can go a long way and help form better rapport and relationships.
          Good manners are the glue of society.

          Date and time
          February 23, 2011, 12:30PM
          • I see no mention of "Top Posting" here.
            Top Posting is the most annoying misuse of email yet,
            but unfortunately, practically every email client is guilty of it,
            ever since email ceased to be more common on UNIX systems and subverted
            by Microsoft products such as Outlook and Exchange.i

            It has to be said, since then, Outlook has promoted the absolute worst
            of email hygiene, including obfuscation of the message transaction banner,
            top posting (as mentioned), HTML'ised email, embedded image attachments,
            auto open attachements and the usual stuff that leads to users not being able
            to clearly read their email in a non-Microsoft client or worse.

            But for me, top posting is pretty obnoxious. The main reason is because it
            can confuse "who said what" in an email thread. With top posting, it is unclear
            who wrote what part of the thread and leads to poor formatting and trimming.
            With Bottom Posting, the thread of the topic within the body of the email
            is quite clear.

            Here are a few URL's to peruse
            if you want to know more about top posting:



            ....and I will leave the rest for you to find on Google etc...

            Date and time
            February 23, 2011, 12:30PM
            • It's sad times when common sense needs to be pointed out.

              Date and time
              February 23, 2011, 12:40PM
              • Know what CC is. Clear copy. Don't copy me then wonder why I don't respond.

                Keep CC to a minimum. Because then you get the Reply All. Then more Reply All. To the point where - what was this about again because.... (note ellipsis)

                The subject is too genenric (if you even bothered to include one)

                I should know what the email is about with a brief summary in the subject header. Not the whole story either.

                Glory Days
                Date and time
                February 23, 2011, 1:30PM
                • My pet hate is when someone is frustrated and they start the email with only your first name. Example:


                  blah blah blah

                  So rude. If you're frustrated and you have a problem pick up the phone and clear it up that way rather than sending a snippy email.

                  I've always wanted to lose it and write something equally snippy back but unfortunately it gets you nowhere.

                  I also hate in emails at work when people don't include their signature block repeatedly - ie. removing their contact details. If you're afraid of people ringing you and actually speaking on the phone, perhaps you should reconsider your career.

                  Date and time
                  February 23, 2011, 1:30PM
                  • If you are sending an email to many people or replying to all make sure that only the appropriate people are receiving the email.

                    Money tree
                    Date and time
                    February 23, 2011, 2:39PM
                    • Some countries insist on a surname being used in most correspondence until you are on very familiar terms. (Japan and Germany come to mind, where I do a lot of work.) In international business, always start with the surname and very quickly those people comfortable with their first names will let you know.

                      Rick Blain
                      Date and time
                      February 23, 2011, 2:47PM

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