The Hiltmon

On walkabout in life and technology

Email Etiquette

I don’t know about you, but I get a lot of emails across a lot of accounts and the time and effort to process my inbox is growing exponentially. I just wish that senders and responders on email would follow some basic etiquette rules that will make our use of email both more pleasant and more productive.

Email is a form of communication which is a reflection of you. Bad email etiquette reflects badly on you, and a record of this is kept in mailboxes over which you have no control. Good email etiquette reflects well on you, improves your public perception and persona and increases the chance of a prompt and comprehensive response. It’s not hard to maintain good email etiquette once you know what it is.

One thing before we start, before creating or responding to an email, ask yourself this: is email the right medium for this communication? If you are not sure, pick up the phone or wander over to the person and have a conversation. Email only if it is the right medium.

And always follow good etiquette. This article contains a comprehensive list of rules and recommendations learned through experience and research.

Recipients

TO:

Add only the people you expect a response from or have actions for in the TO line. Do not include addresses for recipients that you do not expect responses or have no actions, they go in the CC line.

Recipients often decide whether to even read an email based on whether they are on the TO line or not. Some have mail rules that highlight emails where they are in the TO line. I, for example, have a rule that grays out all emails where I am only in the CC line so they look less important, and fade email text even further where I am in neither the TO or CC. That way, TO emails to me are the only ones with black text and stand out.

Only send an email to a recipient once, to a single email address. If you are not sure which of their email addresses to use, determine whether the email is for work or play; if work, use their company email; if play, use their personal email address. But don’t do both. Getting the same email twice in multiple accounts doubles the email workload of recipients and is very annoying. To reinforce the point, never send play emails to work addresses and vice versa.

As a recipient, if you are on the TO line, know that the email is expressly intended for you, a response is most likely expected and it may contain actions for you to perform. It’s good etiquette to read these emails as soon as you can.

CC:

Use the CC line for recipients that need to know the content of the email but are not expected to respond, like those who need to be “in the loop”. Make the CC list as short as possible, then prune it. Only those that really need to know need be on the list.

It is very bad etiquette to use the CC list to “copy up”, or copy people’s bosses, in order to coerce them into actions or response. It is just as bad to use the CC list to cover your behind, copying your boss to show you tried to do something. The better approach is to email the recipient directly, and if and only if you get no response after several attempts, then email their bosses (or yours) directly with a specific concern. But give them a chance to respond first.

As a recipient, if you are on the CC line, do not reply to the email, you’re not expected to. However, if you see something odd or feel the need to add something to the email, reply to the sender directly (never reply-all) with your comments. If the sender thinks your comments add value to the conversation, they will forward it on to the group.

If the “in the loop” or “need to know” group is very large, then don’t use CC. Instead, send the email to the TO recipients only. Then forward a copy of the sent email to the larger group (use the TO field) but tag the email as a For Your Information (FYI), and explain at the top of the body why you forwarded the email to them and make it clear that they have No Need to Respond (NNTR).

BCC:

As a rule of thumb, never use BCC. Most email clients hide it by default, you should too. If you BCC your boss or the recipient’s boss in an email, the recipient will eventually find out you did it and the consequences for you are grave indeed.

BCC does however have one purpose, for group mailings. If you have a mailing list or need to send to a small group privately where the TO and CC lists may get big, load them all into BCC instead and send the message to yourself.

If the mailing list exceeds 20, use a third party service like MailChimp and offer an unsubscribe option on the mail out. Respect the unsubscribe option, make it easy to unsubscribe (no logins, links, “are you sure?” questions or extra steps), and promptly remove people from the mailing list. Do not send emails to other people’s mailing lists without their written permission, that’s called spamming and it is illegal. Also, if you do a mailing using BCC or a third party, ensure that you monitor any replies.

FROM:

Most email clients these days support multiple email accounts. Always make sure you send an email or a response from the correct account. Use the work account for work emails, personal for personal. Good email etiquette requires you receive emails in the appropriate account, you should send them from it too.

If a sender does send an email to the wrong account, respond from the correct account and point it out to them. If they continue to do so, send them a very pointed message indicating the correct account to use, and stop responding from the wrong account.

Priority

Do not ever use the priority field in an email. You don’t get to decide for the recipient what is important or urgent to them, they are fully capable of determining such from your subject and body.

As a recipient, priority flags are rude, as if the email is shouting for attention. When recipients see a priority flagged email, they are more likely to get annoyed, push it to the bottom of their response pile, or just delete it.

Subject

Never send an email without a subject. The subject line of an email helps the recipient decide whether to read the email or not.

Blank subject lines are plainly unhelpful and show that the sender did not even care enough to write one, so the recipient should not care enough to read it. I know several folks who have an email rule that automatically deletes all blank subject emails, and am thinking of adding one to my email client too (but not yet).

Instead, the subject of an email should be short, expressive, meaningful and compelling; it should be a very short précis of the email body content. It turns out that this is rather easy to do: each email has a topic, use that, or it has a main action request, use that, or it is part of a larger context, use that. One habit of great email writers is that they save the subject line for last, so that they can create a clear and concise body, get a feel for what they are trying to say, and then use a summary of that as the subject.

Note that it is a subject line, not a subject word. Single word subjects like “Question?” or “Hi” are useless in helping the recipient guess what the email is about. Subject lines like “Question about Kifu’s Database” or “Lets go to dinner” are so much clearer and help the recipient know what to expect.

The subject line should always match the body of the email. If the email is about dinner, do not use a question about work as the subject. It sounds obvious that the subject line should match the email body content. But there are those out there who feel a funny or poetic or a unique and catchy subject line will garner more attention for that email, and they are wrong. Busy email recipients will ignore subject lines that make no sense to them and will therefore be less likely to read and respond.

The bodiless email is totally acceptable if the entire message can be written in the subject line. There is nothing to put in the body of a “Enjoyed dinner last night” email, and no need for the recipient to open it up.

Top tip: Use the EOM (End Of Message) abbreviation on subject only emails to help the recipient out, they now know there’s no body, e.g. “Enjoyed dinner last night -EOM-”. EOM saves them time, saves you time, will make you a better subject writer, and will encourage others to do the same. Or use texting or instant messaging instead.

Create a New Email

Body: Greeting

It’s become a common practice to just jump to the body content of the email without a greeting or salutation. Don’t do it. Always start with a greeting, an opener or a salutation. Greet all the people in the TO line by name. If you do not know their names (for say support emails or first contact events), you still need an opener, use “Dear Sir/Madam” if you have to, or “Dear Awesome Support Ninja” or “Hi Contacts at Noverse LLC”.

But why start with a greeting?

Well, for starters, it’s more polite, but really it sets the tone of the email. A formal greeting, “Dear Mr Lipschitz”, indicates a formal email; a “Hi Hilton”, sets a more informal tone; a “H” is OK for close friends; and a “Hilton” on it’s own usually means I’m about to get berated for doing something naughty. Greetings that do not include a name usually imply that the message is a mailing, a one-way communication.

Secondly, it reinforces the TO line need for a response. If the recipient is greeted by name at the start, they know the message is expressly for them and that a response is expected. No greeting, or a generic team greeting, reinforces that the message is a FYI only and no response is necessary, perfect for mailings.

Body: First Time Emails

Once you get past the greeting, if this is the first time you are emailing someone, it’s good email etiquette to do two things, properly introduce yourself and submit your full contact details.

The introduction does not have to be long and wordy, just enough that the recipient remembers who you are if you have met them before, or enough to set up the conversation. You don’t need to write a resume with your skills, experiences, education, hobbies and music tastes; just enough to establish your credentials and credibility. Then move on.

You should always include all your contact details in a first email in the body of the email, and be comprehensive about it. Your name, title, company, phones, emails and address should all be included. If you use vCards, and most do not, attach it. Format your contact details such that the data detectors in modern email clients can figure out your contact information so the recipient can use these to add you to their address book. If you have your full contact details in your email signature, consider simplifying that and manually adding your contact details in first emails only.

It’s up to the recipient to maintain their address books and it’s good email etiquette to do so.

Body: Content

The body of the email is where your message goes. An email should contain one and only one topic, it should stick to that topic and stay on point. If you have more topics to discuss, consider sending additional separate emails.

The body should be concise, brief and, where possible, no more that four (4) paragraphs long. If you have to exceed this limit because there is more information to share, alert the reader in the first paragraph that this will be a long email, and expect them to take longer to respond. Most recipients flag longer emails for later reading.

Write short, concise sentences, and group them in short paragraphs. If actions are required by the recipient, express them clearly as actions. Make sure that each sentence is clear and adds to the content, it does not repeat what has already been written. To help you do this, imagine if someone who has no idea of the context gets to read this email, will they understand it? If not, your email is not clear enough.

It is good email etiquette to respect your recipient’s time. Spend extra time to edit down the message body to make it more concise and clear, to make your questions more pertinent or your actions more explicit. Do what you can to make it easy for the recipient to read, understand and respond.

Put the “bottom line” up front. If you are asking for something, ask up front, if you need something done, put the actions up front. Use the remaining body text to clarify the question, explain why you need something or to backup your points. This will also establish the email’s context and purpose for the recipient.

If you are asking questions, number them. This will help the recipient refer to each in their answers. If you are the recipient of an email that contains questions, answer all of them. Do not ignore some of them, do not only answer the ones you feel like. If, as a recipient, the questions are unclear, feel free to respond by asking for clarification. But when you do get around to answering, always answer them all.

Try to avoid open-ended questions in emails, such as “Thoughts?”. You’re not doing the recipient any favors by asking such an open-ended question in the wrong medium for such things. If you want open-ended answers, pick up the phone and have a conversation.

If no response is required to a message, but as a sender you still feel the need to send the email, then greet appropriately, keep the message body concise and indicate a NNTR (No Need To Respond) as early as possible. Like the EOM and FYI above, NNTR is polite and helps the recipient know what is expected of them.

Body: Actions

A lot of emails are sent in order to obtain responses from recipients. The questions that are asked or the activities requested in response are called actions. These should be communicated first, at the top of an email body. As a recipient, it’s always best to find out what the sender wants and then why, when and how. By putting the actions up front, the sender makes the way forward very clear to all.

Actions should be in active, not passive form. They should indicate which recipient the action is for, what the action is, when it needs to be done, and if possible, how the response is preferred. Actions should be clear, concise and unambiguous in all ways. If-then actions are acceptable, the sender may request alternatives depending on conditions, or offer options to the recipient.

Actions should always have a deadline. Always. Even asking questions should have a deadline. This helps the recipient determine the importance and timing of their response. If the deadlines are too tight or ambiguous (ASAP), the recipient will either baulk or request clarification. So senders, please set safe and clear deadlines and expectations, and be prepared to discuss them.

If an email has no questions or actions, use the FYI tag. Start or end the subject with FYI, start the first paragraph with FYI or use NNTR somewhere in the message.

Body: Style

We’ve talked about short paragraphs and short, clear, concise sentences. But there is more to a good email body than that.

Use capital letters appropriately, text in all capitals indicates shouting and is perceived as rude. Some people go the opposite way and write emails in all lowercase. That too is just as rude as it means they don’t even care enough to write properly. Use sentence cases correctly. Avoid overusing exclamation marks, your message content should sufficiently express your emotional state.

Writing good emails requires attention to spelling and grammar too. Always write grammatically correct sentences, even if you use sentence fragments as I do. And only use fragments when the topic is paragraph delimited. Beware of misspellings, especially names, as the meaning of your message may be lost in anger or confusion. Structure your sentences into paragraphs that make topical sense and use the right language and vocabulary for the topic.

There are also things to avoid. Avoid using abbreviations if possible, unless you are using EOM, NNTR or FYI; or if the abbreviation is impossible to confuse and in common use in context. Stay away from emoticons, or use them very sparingly. Beware of the tone of your writing, the recipient cannot read your facial expression and so cannot guess when you are being serious or joking. And lose the attitude.

Write to the language and needs of your audience, observe the cultural mores of the group, but try to keep the email personable as well. Use gender neutral phrases wherever possible, you never know to whom the email will be forwarded. Of course, keep your language clean.

And for all that is precious, stop using clichés and tautological phrases. Don’t “circle back”, “touch base”, “to be honest”, “at the end of the day”, “I personally”, “at this moment in time”, “it’s a nightmare”, “24/7”, “synergize”, “fairly unique”, or “it’s not rocket science”. These violate the concise rule anyway.

Beware of writing emails when angry or emotional. These turn out to be contentious, say nothing of value and do no more than to inflame the recipient, which serves no purpose. If you are angry, and need to express your outrage, take a breath, calm down, and write a reasoned and well argued message instead. It’s easy to forget sometimes that the recipient is an emotional human too. And that these email outbursts are also archived and may be used against you later.

Aside: Process and Edit

Never bang out an email and hit Send without processing and editing it several times. If you rush it, you will make all the above content and style mistakes, and the recipient will not be happy.

Re-read the email several times. Check for consistency, check the grammar, check the spelling, check the tone, check the clarity. Edit it as if you are a New York Times sub-editor to remove padding, fluff, inconsistencies, repetitions and emotional outbursts. Then re-read it again.

A trick used by great email writers is to read the email aloud, as if sharing the content verbally with a real person standing in front of them. I don’t mean you should stand up in your cubicle and talk to yourself loudly, just read it using the voice in your head. This trick often helps people see how to improve their content.

Responding to Emails

Responses

As mentioned before, it is expected that the recipient responds when their name is in the TO list and in the greeting, unless the email is tagged as FYI or has a NNTR message.

It is however, not expected that the response be instant. If the sender needs an instant response, they would call, text or instant message. Many busy people avoid email interruptions during the day so they can be more productive and schedule time to look at emails later. Or they are in meetings or away from their desks or eating or sitting on a bus. When they do get to their emails, they respond. Do not assume that just because they have an iPhone or Blackberry that they are looking at it all the time. People do have work to do and lives to live outside email.

However, as a recipient where a question is asked or an action is expected, you should respond as swiftly as possible, especially if you are in the TO list. That’s assuming you can act or answer. If you can, great, act, answer the email and send the response. If not, send a response anyway to indicate that you will get to it later and when you will act or answer. And make sure you do.

Recipients should never be afraid to ask for clarifications before acting or answering, it ensures better communication. Picking up the phone to discuss an email is an acceptable response. Recipients should also answer all the questions posed, or perform all the actions requested in the response; or do none of the above and explain why in their response.

Responses, like new email messages, need to be concise and to the point. They also need to be clear, full sentences, grammatically correct, not contain bad language or attitude, checked and edited. The role of sender and recipient are reversed, but the etiquette remains the same.

Senders, remember that slow and short responses are not rude. The recipient is a busy person too, and it did take time to read your email, formulate a response, review it, edit it and send it. Appreciate any and all responses.

There are also times when a response is completely unnecessary. There is no need to send a “Thank You” to a clear and simple response (in fact there is quite a controversy whether “Thank You” emails are even good etiquette). For example, if a response to an invitation is “I’m coming”, there is no need to respond to that. If the response is “I’m coming, what can I bring?”, you do need to respond to that.

Never ever respond to spam or phishing or emails where you cannot verify the sender. It usually tells them that your email address is good and they’ll either spoof it or nail you with more spam emails.

Reply vs Reply-All

Short version, avoid reply-all.

If you are not in the TO line, most certainly never reply-all. If you need to submit a reply, sender only.

If you are on the TO line, still consider reply instead of reply-all. If you are seeking clarification, reply to sender only, others have no need to see that discussion. If you are the wrong person to answer, reply to sender only. If it’s an invitation, reply to sender only.

The only time reply-all is acceptable is when the answers to the questions posted are needed by the entire group, and the CC group is small. Still consider replying just to the sender and letting them forward on the parts they believe the group should know.

It’s unfortunate that the reply-all has been so overused such that senders assume all email replies are replies-to-all and they have to do nothing further in the email conversation. Remember, recipients on the CC line are less likely to read an email, and replies-to-all are even less likely than that to be read. A fresh email from the sender containing additional information is more likely to be read and actioned.

If you do start following good email etiquette using reply instead of reply-all, use your greeting line to reinforce that the response is a reply by only greeting the sender by name as if it were a person-to-person email. That should trigger in their minds that you did not reply-all and that they need to look at your response and act on it on behalf of the group.

Aside: Quoting

One of the common problems with emails and responses and responses to responses is that the discussion chain gets long and hard to follow. Additional recipients may get added, and the conversation may branch off in many different directions. Feel for the poor new recipient that has a 20 email discussion chain to catch up on. They have better things to do.

The solution to this issue is quoting. Instead of replying to the email chain, quote the relevant parts of it. When the chain gets three or more emails deep, summarize and start a new one.

Quoting is simple, and there are two common ways to do it. The first way is to start a new email chain and summarize the discussion so far after writing the action or questions (or quote only relevant paragraphs from the chain and edit out the rest). That way, the new recipient has a context in which to work and they can catch up quickly. Always use this way when adding new recipients to a discussion instead of sending the whole chain (and it’s OK to FYI CC the old chain’s recipients).

The second method of quoting is to strip out only the questions from the email and respond below each, removing all the other text and attachments from the response email (called interleaved posting). For example, if you receive:

1
2
3
4
5
6
Blah di blah di blah di blah

1. What Time for Dinner?
2. Where shall we have it?

More blah blah di blah blah

Respond as such (using the > character to quote)

1
2
3
4
> 1. What Time for Dinner?
  7:00PM
> 2. Where shall we have it?
  Balthazar in Soho

Most email clients will do the quoting for you if you just create new lines in the middle of the original text.

In short, it’s good email etiquette to clean up long email chains using one of the quoting methods.

Forwarding

Unfortunately, forwarding an email has become too easy and commonplace, and it needs to stop in most cases. If you feel like forwarding an email, stop, think, why are you doing it, why does the new recipient need the full email. If you still feel the need to forward it, why not make a new email instead? The questions and actions in forwarded emails invariably do not apply to the forwarded recipient, and the information may not be appropriate for them.

If you do receive an email that’s directed to you but not for you, i.e. that you cannot act on or answer, but know who can, reply to the sender and give them the correct contact person. They can then send their request again to a new recipient (and take you out of the loop). Do not forward the email, CC the original sender and forget about it. If you do, you’ll remain in the loop on a discussion that has no place in your inbox.

Never forward emails to people who already have it. This bad behavior is quite common in larger organizations when a company-wide mailing is sent out and then managers forward it to their staff again to remind them of it. It’s the same as sending the same email to the same contact at more than one address. Don’t do it.

If course, do not, ever, forward spam, phishing, chain letters, jokes, hoaxes, viruses or other junk email. And be careful of forwarding any libelous, defamatory, offensive, racist or obscene emails either. You may not have originated the message, but are responsible for forwarding it.

When it comes to forwarding, the rule of thumb is simply not to do it.

Signing Off

Sign off

Well, you’ve created a great subject, and written a beautifully concise and clear body, now it’s time to end the message. Much has been written about when to and whether to use “Yours Sincerely”, “Yours Faithfully”, “Best Regards”, “Thanks”, “Cheers” and other phrases. Deciding which to use and when is up to you, and not using any of them is more than fine too. In fact, I have stopped using them as have many others. Save these for old fashioned written letters that go in envelopes and have handwritten signatures on them.

Good email etiquette does require that you do have an end to the message, and that you do so as quickly and concisely as the rest. The only requirement is that you sign off with your name. Now there are many curmudgeons out there that complain that they know too many “Mikes”, “Bills” and “Bobs”, but it is absolutely OK to use just your first name in an email sign off. If they want to know which “Mike”, “Bill” or “Bob” sent the message, they can look at the FROM field.

Never leave the sign off out, it brackets the body content between the greeting and signature or earlier copy and is always necessary.

Signatures

There is much discussion on the topic of auto-added email signatures, when they should be used and what they should contain. Good email etiquette simply requires that these signatures be sensible.

So what makes a sensible email signature? Start by making it plain text, separated from the sign off by blank lines or a line of hyphens, and left aligned so it’s easy to read. Keep it short, very short. If you sent your full contact information in the first email, there is no need to repeat it in following emails. Your name, company and direct phone is enough as a quick reference.

Signatures should avoid any attachments such as logos or scans of handwritten signatures, they add no value and confuse email clients into thinking that there is an attachment to the email when there is none. Even modern HTML signatures that use fonts and images should be avoided, they look like the image is embedded, when it’s not.

Avoid disclaimers. Seriously, they are a no-no. Most legal departments require them, and will tell you that it will protect you from liability. Thats bullshit. According to The Economist, “Lawyers and experts on internet policy say no court case has ever turned on the presence or absence of such an automatic email [disclaimer] in America, the most litigious of rich countries.” and “Many disclaimers are, in effect, seeking to impose a contractual obligation unilaterally, and thus are probably unenforceable.” Most lawyers require their use because other lawyers do and other companies have them. That’s not a good reason for doing it. So just stop it.

Oh, and no-one prints emails anymore, so nags to save the environment by not printing are no longer fun or quaint. Lose them too.

Attachments

Attachments in emails are unavoidable, but not a bad thing if managed properly. Try not to attach anything to an email if you can, use prose in the body to communicate. Also know that when you “embed” an image or file in the middle of an email body, it actually creates an attachment.

But if you do need to attach documents, try to follow the good email etiquette rules. Only attach the necessary documents relating to the email topic. Keep the attachments small. A good example is photos or screen shots, crop and shrink them before attaching them. If the recipient wants full fidelity, let them ask for it and only then send it. Feel free to Zip compress attachments to make them smaller.

Make sure that each and every attachment (or file in the Zip) is well named. Use a name that makes sense outside the context of the email and to the recipient. Calling a file “contract.pdf” is no good, calling it the “Noverse NASA Contract for Project Mars.pdf” is much better. Most email clients these days dump attachments in a downloads folder or on users’ desktops intermixed with their other files. So please, name them well before attaching so that the recipient needs no effort to recognize them outside the email context.

Most email systems will accept emails up to 10GB and many are moving to 20GB or more. If your attachments are more than 100MB, though, you should warn the recipient that the email contains large attachments. They can then save the attachments and delete the email to save their precious email server and computer disk space. When it comes to large attachments, it is the best etiquette to actually send an email with the content and a second separate email with no body content and just the attachments. That way, the recipient can nuke the email that is all attachments and still keep the regular content body email for responding to. And all the responses in the chain don’t get duplicated attachments either.

And as a reminder, don’t have any attachments in your email signature. No vCards, no logos, no photos, it confuses email clients and recipients.

Email Don’ts

There are some email features you should never ever use.

Do not use delivery and read receipts, ever. Firstly, they are unreliable. Secondly, all smart email users turn off this feature so it cannot work anyway. And thirdly, it’s rude, it does not imply the recipient’s acceptance to perform the actions or answer the questions, nor absolve the sender’s responsibility for getting those actions done or questions answered.

Don’t recall an email. This too does not work. The email may have been read already, or forwarded or archived. At best, the recipient will see the recall email and wonder why. If you send an email by accident, send another to apologize and for the recipient to ignore the original. Better yet, review and edit your emails properly before sending so you never need to recall them.

Don’t use the dreaded auto-responder. These are commonly used to advise that you are out of the office, but lots of companies are using them to respond to their send-only email addresses. Stop it. Out-of-office emails just clog up inboxes, add no value to conversations and are completely unnecessary since we all have smartphones. If you are away, great, have a wonderful time. Either you will be able to respond from your mobile device, or you’ll respond when you get back. No need to send us robot emails. And never use a send-only email address, ever. Regular folks will still reply to it and they are usually your customers, so monitor all your email addresses for replies. It’s plain rude not to.

This bears repeating, don’t set the priority flag, let the subject and body content speak for itself.

This also bears repeating, don’t reply-all. Reply to the sender. If the group needs to know and the group is small, then maybe, just maybe, reply all. If in doubt, reply to sender only, they can easily disseminate the important replies.

Privacy

Email is not and never has been private. Once you send an email, the recipient can and will do what they want with it. If you need to share private information, pick up the phone, use a different secure system, or use encrypted attachments. Only ever discuss public matters in an email.

If you can help it, never email confidential information either. Once emailed, confidential information becomes public as email is not private. Even though we hate the damn things, confidentiality agreements do exist to theoretically enable people to email confidential stuff around, but they rely on discretion and trust that the recipient agrees the information is confidential. As with private information, if you do need to send confidential information, wrap it in a locked format like PDF, password protect it and encrypt it. But be aware, there is nothing really to prevent the recipient of unlocking the information and still sharing it publicly.

Use your corporate email for work only. Never use it for personal stuff. Corporate email is not private, it is archived, it is monitored, and most have policies against it. Use your private email for personal affairs.

While we are at it, a reminder to never send personal messages to a recipient’s corporate addresses, or work emails to their personal one. Good email etiquette is sending the right message to the right mailbox.

Spam

To spam is to “send the same message indiscriminately to (large numbers of recipients) on the Internet.” Don’t do it.

Don’t send unsolicited emails to people. If you want to email someone to promote your product, find another way to contact them first. Then use an email to introduce yourself and your product as a response to that interaction.

As a recipient, make sure that you regularly check your spam and junk email boxes. At least weekly. It is really bad email etiquette to say you did not get a message because your spam filter took it out. Spam filters only work if you train them, and that requires all email users to review their email marked as spam and clean up the false positives. Over time, most spam filters will get better and better at knowing what is good and what is bad, but it needs to be trained and monitored.

If you, as a recipient, find that you are not getting emails from a sender and do not have access to your corporate or domain spam filter to fix it yourself, make the effort to get your IT team to fix it. Do not, under any circumstances, expect the sender to change their name or email practices to suit your stupid spam filter.

Controversies

Thank You Emails

There are those who believe that the “Thank You” email is a waste of inbox space, just increases their time spent processing their inboxes, and so should not exist. And there are those who believe that a failure to thank recipients for their information, actions and answers is rude and so “Thank You” messages are great. There are those who think they get too many “Thank You” emails and those who feel they get too few.

In order to settle this controversy, I propose that you only send “Thank You” emails under the following circumstances:

  • The recipient has responded and gone out of their way to do so.
  • It’s an exceptional case where you would like to be thanked if you were the one who did that thing or sent that thing.
  • If the sender is someone you rarely communicate with.

Don’t send “Thank You” emails to every response you get. Don’t send “Thank You” emails to people you know are busy and get a lot of email. Don’t send “Thank You” responses for insignificant emails that just contain FYI information. Don’t send “Thank You” emails if you can say it in person.

In short, almost never send “Thank You” emails unless you have something to add.

Top, Bottom or Interleaved Posting

There is also quite a controversy over response quoting styles. There are three styles. Interleaved posting is when you interleave the question and your answer in the body of the email. Top posting, the default these days, is where your response is at the top of the body and the email chain is below. And bottom posting is where your response is at the bottom of the email with the chain above.

Interleaved posting is preferred by those who have been on the Internet the longest and is still viewed as the recommended approach when responding to multiple-question emails. It requires more work by the respondent to clean up and interleave their responses, but makes the final product clearer and easier to understand. Quoted question, answer, quoted question, answer, easy.

Top posting is preferred in business where the unmodified transcript of the discussion is needed for the official record and the latest information is therefore available at the top. Most business types do not like their messages being edited and cut up for interleaved posting, and somehow live with long email chains. Good email etiquette accepts top posting, but does require that when the email chain gets too long, that a summary and a new chain be started to make the discussion easier to follow.

Bottom posting is best for new recipients where the body of the email then follows in standard English reading order and matches traditional correspondence approaches. Good bottom posters actually trim the chain to quote only pertinent information and then add their responses. But scrolling down to see the latest is a hassle for many and so its popularity is declining.

The right email etiquette solution to this controversy in my opinion is as follows:

  • Use interleaved quoting for multi-question responses and strip the original text and chain from the bottom of the email.
  • Use top posting for single question emails, quick responses or for “on the record” business correspondence.
  • Kill long chain emails and start another with a précis instead of adding to a long chain wherever you can, and especially if you started the chain and are thus its “owner”.
  • Do the same when adding new recipients to a discussion, start a new chain with a précis, don’t just lazily send them a long email chain to look at.

Auto-signatures

The auto-signature is the signature text added by your mail client at the bottom of each and every message you send. We’ve all seen the “Sent from my iPhone” one and the one with the 20 line disclaimers.

Proponents of fancy auto-signatures include lawyers who are copying others with disclaimers and marketing types who believe that a good auto-signature is a call to action and a great marketing ploy. They are both wrong. These kinds of auto-signatures are just a waste of space, add no value to the communication and annoy recipients.

Those who are against auto-signatures usually do follow good email etiquette by ensuring their contact details are delivered properly on first contact emails, and thereafter believe there is no need to repeat that information.

And then there are those who believe that the original email in a chain should have a signature block, but replies and forwards should not. This, dear friends, is the correct email etiquette, but so few mail clients can do this automatically. The signature, as discussed above, when you do use one, should be short and sweet and only appear on emails that you originate. All responses and forwards should not have a signature, it just messes up the response chain and makes it harder to read.

A new, trending, auto-signature behavior is to always use the auto-signature on your mobile device though, but not to promote it’s make and model. The idea behind a mobile auto-signature is that it indicates to the recipient that you are in fact on a mobile device, probably not at the office, in a hurry, and they can and should forgive your bad grammar, spelling and lack of greeting, body structure and sign off.

Another trend in signatures is not to use the auto-signature feature at all. Instead, use a product like TextExpander or the multi-signature feature of most email clients to store a bunch of signatures for different accounts and situations and to manually choose which one to use for each email, with the default being no signature block. First-contact-email-personal, first-contact-business-professional, regular-business, regular-personal, internal-business, responding-to-support-emails, short-business, short-personal are all different signatures with different content to be used in different circumstances. It’s one more step in creating the email body content, but so much better etiquette, and I am planning on adopting this habit going forward.

HTML Emails

The email protocol in itself is plain text, with attachments. Most modern email clients, however, have the ability to send and display rich text emails and HTML formatted emails (which are essentially the same thing).

The old consensus on the Internet was that you should still be sending all your emails in plain text format. Go ahead, Google it. Mainly because back when the Internet was young, people used plain text terminals to read emails. They also used plain text terminals to read web pages.

But every, and I mean every, modern email client can render Rich Text emails, even the web based ones. Rich Text emails are just emails that use a really small subset of HTML to enable bold, italic, lists, colors and fonts in the message body. HTML emails, ones where you can do anything in the HTML, such as the “Stationary” supplied with some email clients, may not render so well, especially in other very popular email clients used by companies and made by Microsoft.

This controversy has worked itself out, though. Since all email clients these days support Rich Text (the HTML subset), this should be used. But go easy with it, some bold or italic, a numbered list, maybe a single additional color, and that’s it. Don’t use stationery, custom fonts, background pictures, HTML tables or manual HTML and CSS in emails.

So, Email Etiquette

In short, create emails using CC sparingly, write great subjects, greet all recipients by name, keep the body single topic, short and clear, actions at the top, sign off with your name, limit attachment usage and get rid of large signatures. Respond only if you are expected to, interleave quote if you can, and rarely if ever reply-all. If we all did these things, we’ll all have a far better time managing our burgeoning inboxes and communicating more effectively with each other via email.

For a fun, historical perspective, check out the 1995 Netiquette RFC 1855.

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