What is the Best Business Email Etiquette?

May 12, 2016

What is your business email etiquette like? We write dozens of emails every working day. Yet often email etiquette rules are unclear or ignored. Email is crucial to workplace communication, so how can we make it easier on ourselves?

Like most people, email is part and parcel of daily life for me.

I recently turned on the television and that romantic comedy from the 90s called “You’ve Got Mail” was showing. It was cute and rather quaint how excited they were to just send emails back and forth.

I’m actually old enough to have experienced that period of time first hand. I vividly remember how novel and modern it all seemed.

Today, many people view email as the bane of their existence, and not without reason. Ah, but there is always a “but.”

To some people, email might seem to be the place where intelligent conversation and the associated accoutrements of logical arguments, constructive dialogue, and even carefully crafted sentences with proper grammar and syntax have all gone to die.

Maybe, at times, I’m even one of them, but then again, maybe not.

I might be approaching the age when I’m going to start telling all those noisy kids to get off my lawn; however, I’m not here to decry the death of the English language due to email just yet.

I do actually have a few things to say about Grammar though, but I’ll come back to that.

What is email? – a deceptively simple question

Email is a type of communication

I don’t hate email at all. In fact, it is often my preferred method of communication. The point to really understand is that email is a tool. It is a means of communication, not a form of communication.

“Email” simply refers to the method of transfer. This is equally true for regular mail. A utility bill, a mail-order catalogue, a post card, a credit card offer, and letter from a dear friend are all vastly different forms of communication. The only thing that they have in common is their method of delivery.

If this is the case with regular mail, why do we then insist emails should all be written in the same way? Why create silly, arbitrary rules?

There are people who believe that an email should never be more than five sentences long. Others feel that you should never leave off salutations or valedictions. There are actual debates about what is proper or possibly insulting, (best regards, sincerely yours, cheers, etc.). Really? Why not just use your judgement?

No different to other forms of communication

Man typing on keyboard

Some people feel strongly that email is frequently used as a means to show power or authority. They point to well-known examples such as Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, forwarding lengthy questions to members of his staff by simply inserting a question mark.

To be honest, I don’t see how this is any different than any other method of communication. It’s a widely accepted practice that persons in lower positions of authority are generally the ones who need to present ideas or provide explanations and, as such, do most of the talking.

I highly doubt that Jeff Bezos just sends “?” to company shareholders. I’m pretty sure that he probably relies on a combination of his own personal management style, knowledge of particular situations or customs, and good judgement when composing emails.

Simply use good judgement to guide you

Man relaxing

Like any tool, the most important thing to know is when and how to use it. There are some differing philosophies in this regard, but I think most of them address symptoms rather than root causes.

It’s like the rule of never reading or writing emails that contain more than 5 sentences. It addresses the need to reduce time dealing with your inbox, but I find it to be a clumsy approach.

You’re sometimes left with more questions than answers, and then you need to send more five-line emails back and forth.

I’m a big proponent of making emails as short as possible. However, it would be more accurate to say that I’m a proponent of making every text that I write as short as possible.

I’ll let Henry David Thoreau explain the notion in words far prettier than I can string together:

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”

Lots of people write short emails, but they are artificially short and often very difficult to understand because they have invested little thought or effort into it.

I think this is the result of email applications being abused and misunderstood as instant messaging systems for many years (due to a lack of better solutions). Fortunately, I think this is also changing in most office environments.

If Jeff Bezos sends me a question mark, am I supposed to answer the original sender? Is Mr. Bezos looking for an explanation as well? How much info does he really want? Can I just write “we’re on it,” as a reply? Maybe he should just send me a chat message first so that I can get some clarification.

Let the subject, the purpose, and the intended audience dictate the length and detail of the message. It’s no different than regular mail. It’s no different than a conversation in person either.

In essence, the polite thing to do is show that you appreciate your readers’ or listeners’ time and act accordingly.

Needless to say, don’t abuse the cc and bcc fields.

A lot of other options

Coworkers in a meeting

I’ve waxed philosophical regarding email, but there are a lot of other options as well, and this is where I see improvements in many office environments.

People are starting to recognize the importance of using the right tool for the job.

When I don’t have much time, it’s actually faster to talk to colleagues on the phone or in person.

Before I start to write some long, rambling email (or a long chain or short, rambling emails), I’ll just stand up and go talk to that person.

With video chat now widely available, this is now an option even when colleagues are located in different offices.

If our discussion doesn’t require a permanent record of information, and to be honest most conversations do not, I can use a chat application to quickly connect to colleagues.

With a proper chat application, they don’t even have to be online. They’ll get the message at the first available opportunity.

I once worked as the editorial manager for a team that was responsible for putting together a press review for the executive board of a major, global corporation.

Work started at 5:00 am and the review had to be ready by 9:00 am. Needless to say, it was very fast paced and generated a tremendous amount of email. In retrospect, we should have been using a chat application.

However, we still managed to reduce the amount of emails and the time taken to read and write them by half.

I did so by asking people to actually slow down. They wrote in full sentences, stopped using unnecessary abbreviations, and read messages in their entirety.

Slowing down actually produced more accurate results in less time due to lack of repetitive work and misunderstandings.

A final note on Grammar

Now comes the part where I sound like a stodgy old man for a minute. Intentionally ignoring basic rules for grammar and punctuation is the written equivalent of trying to have a conversation with someone who says, “You know what I mean,” with every second sentence. No. Actually, I don’t.

Lynne Truss, the author of Eats Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, gave a wonderful and humorous explanation for why grammar and punctuation are so important.

Simply put, it’s polite. It shows that we care enough about the people with whom we are communicating that we actually want them to understand the message.

Now I would ask you to please excuse the length of this article. I didn’t have time to write less.

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