E-mail is no longer just for personal use, with all our accepted short forms: LOL, U, GB and a co-worker's favourite, OMG! With the increasing use of e-mail as the first choice for business correspondence it opens a whole new world of dos and don'ts for the assistant.
Here are Some Good-Sense E-mail Etiquette Tips
Although e-mail is less formal than writing a letter it is still polite to open with a greeting. Jane Watson of J. Watson Associates gives the following e-mail tips for Email Salutations in her e-bulletin Business Writing Updates:
“There are several options for starting an e-mail in North America as our business culture is not as formal as other areas. You can use “hi,” “hello,” “good day” or any other variant – including just the first name. I usually tell people to use whatever they would say when they are greeting someone face to face.
I recommend staying away from “good morning” or “good afternoon” as the person may not open the e-mail during that time frame. You could use “greetings” or “hello all” when sending a message to a group. If I didn’t know the person, and it was my first communication to him/her, I would use both names: John McDonald.
Not putting a salutation on the first message of the day to someone is often considered impolite. As you e-mail back and forth during the day, you can drop the salutation when it feels comfortable. “Dear” is considered too formal in North America for an e-mail and is reserved for letters. Note: “Dear” in an e-mail is considered appropriate in countries such as Germany, Switzerland, France, Japan and Indonesia.”1
Be Courteous With E-mail
Are you There?
Who hasn't been annoyed when you e-mail someone and are waiting for an answer, only to find out the person is on vacation, but didn't put their Out-of-Office Assistant on. It is important to let people know when you will not be in the office.
For those who are unfamiliar with Out-of-Office Assistant, go under Tools, Out of Office Assistant.
The following information should be included in your message:
1) The start and end dates of your absence.
2) A message to let your contacts know you’ll answer messages when you return.
3) The name, contact information, and office hours of someone to contact if they require immediate assistance. Of course, check with your co-worker first before providing his or her information.
Who are you?
Be sure to add your signature to your business e-mail with your coordinates. Your company may have a policy on what they want you to include in the signature line and what it should look like, but generally you would include your name, title, company name and address, telephone and fax number. They already know your e-mail address if they have received an e-mail from you so no need to put this in your signature line.
To set an e-mail signature file:
1) From the Tools Menu, choose Options
2) Select Mail Format
3) Select Signatures
4) Select New and follow the instructions to add your e-mail signature. You can make more than one signature to use for different e-mails
5) If you want your signature to be applied automatically to new messages and for replies and forwards. Go back to Mail Format and you will see a drop-down menu for Signature for new message and Signature for replies and forwards. You need to select the signature you want applied to these functions or leave at None if you do not want this set.
Saying Thank you
It is always correct to be courteous, but not annoying? This is a great tip from Jane Watson of J. Watson Associates for Saying Thank You in an Email:
“In our recent poll on pet peeves regarding emails, a number of respondents expressed irritation about receiving messages that contained only the words thank you. They reasoned that opening these short messages wasted their time. They were merely doing their job and didn’t need to be thanked.
I understand their rationale; however, sending a thank you indicates the receipt of information and a close of the requested action. My suggestion – to keep the process short but to acknowledge the receipt of information and your appreciation – is to put the thank you on the subject line along with the indicator END. END on the subject line means there is no need to open the message as there is nothing in the body text…” 2
Writing all in caps is a form of e-mail shouting. Is that the message you want to send to your recipient? If you are visually impaired and need to use all caps and large font and don’t want to offend the reader, my suggestion would be to state that in your opening sentence. That way the reader can relax and continue to read the email knowing you are not shouting at them.
Does it matter what colour of font you use in your e-mail? Colour blindness affects a significant number of people, especially men, when it comes to distinguishing the colour red and green. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) report that, “some 10 million American men – fully 7 percent of the male population – either cannot distinguish red from green, or see red and green differently from most people. This is the commonest form of color blindness, but it affects only .4 percent of women”.3
If you want something to stand out, rather than using a colour you can always use bold or italics for emphasis. I would not recommend using underlining for emphasis in an electronic document as underlining a word usually means you are linking to something else. Because it has taken on this new meaning you may have some confused readers trying to link to another site from your underlined word.4
And what about all that pretty wallpaper that is available for your background? Be sure to check your company email policy: Having butterflies flutter across the screen on the opening of the business e-mail may not be the image your company is looking for.
Reply to all
If you are copied on an e-mail and want to respond to the sender is it really necessary to Reply to all and have every one of the recipients receive your e-mail? If your message is an answer to the sender then just pressing Reply is appropriate or if you are only copied, do you need to reply at all?
Be Angry but Send not!
It is too easy to press Send and then regret what you have written or find yourself in some legal trouble. If you need to vent, try sending yourself the e-mail you wanted to send. Take a few moments to calm down and then go to your Inbox and open your message. You will get a greater sense of what impact that e-mail will have on the recipient. But it is never a good idea to send an angry e-mail in business correspondence.
Good Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation
The rules still apply for using good grammar and punctuation in e-mail: Are you starting that new sentence using a capital letter? Are you asking a question or stating a fact? Is this a new paragraph? Your e-mail will be easier to read if you follow some basic business writing rules. Read the e-mail over for completeness and accuracy. SpellCheck never replaces proofreading your e-mail.
If you say in your e-mail you have an attachment, is the attachment actually there? And please verify to make sure the attachment is the correct attachment, it is easy to drag and drop the wrong attachment.
Check the name of the recipient and make sure they are the actual person (people) you want to send to. Some names are similar in your contact list and it is easy to choose the wrong person, which, depending on the sensitivity of the e-mail, could be embarrassing or worse.
If you are changing the subject, please do not reply to the old e-mail with the same subject line. This can get confusing for the recipient. A good rule of thumb is if you change the subject, start a new e-mail message.
In our fast-paced society e-mail is a quick way of communicating and used properly can be a effective business tool, but e-mail can also be impersonal and is not always the best form of communication. Sometimes a better way to communicate would be picking up the phone or meeting someone face to face. So think twice before pressing Send: Is e-mail the best way to communicate your message?
Tip for filing e-mails: If it is necessary to file a hard copy of the e-mail. File e-mails chronologically by date and time. This will make it easier for the reader to follow the chain of e-mails.
1 Watson, Jane, J. Watson Associates Inc., Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved. Tel: 905-820-9909, Email Salutations, http://www.jwatsonassociates.com/newsletter/jwa_086.htm, (accessed October 22, 2007) (Used with permission)
2 Watson, Jane, J. Watson Associates Inc., Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved. Tel: 905-820-9909, Saying Thank you in an Email, http://www.jwatsonassociates.com/newsletter/jwa_073.htm, (accessed October 22, 2007) (Used with permission)
3 Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Color Blindness: More Prevalent Among Males, (1995 report) (Accessed February 2, 2008) (Used with permission)
4 Gaertner-Johnston, Lynn, Business Writing "Talk, tips, and Best Picks for Writers on the Job", Underling: A Bad Choice Online, http://www.businesswritingblog.com/business_writing/2008/02/underlining-a-b.html
A version of this article appeared in OfficePro Magazine, January/February 2008 edition.