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Modern etiquette: Caution required when dealing with email

11 Comments

Like it or not, we all are responsible for our own communication. Email evokes almost unprecedented cultural and generational challenges.

Why, you ask? Because the primary caveat in communicating effectively is that what you "hear" is more important than what I think I've said.

We have four generations actively engaged in the workplace, and our workplace is indeed global. A baby boomer is easily turned off by undue familiarity, as are individuals from countries more formal than the United States.

Mallory Fix, who teaches English as a Second Language at the University of Pennsylvania, says, "Email etiquette does vary across the globe, especially in ways to address the receiver, the directness of the message, and the closing."

Here are the concerns this columnist hears most often:

Always use a salutation and a closing. Based on your relationship, only you can decide whether deference dictates a "Dear Professor" or "Good morning, Dr. Weber."

One colleague of mine received an email greeting from a student of "Hey, Lou," and then proceeded to ask him for a reference. Bad idea!

For your career's sake, make sure you get the name and title right. In the situation above, the man was a full professor, entitled to more than a modicum of respect. Furthermore, his first name was Dennis!

Avoid trendy abbreviations and be careful of emoticons. They may be misunderstood and thus not clearly convey your meaning.

Don't confuse email with texting or IM. Email is more formal than that. Use complete sentences, correct grammar, correct punctuation, and capitalization. Yet subject lines should be as efficient as a tweet, concisely stating what's important and relevant.

Make sure your subject lines distinguish you from a hacker or a scammer by being current and germane. For example, "Change in Tuesday lunch meeting."

If a subject changes, change the header! Remember that email is no place for stream of consciousness ruminations, so be direct, clear, and succinct. Respond in full sentences.

When you have a long list of comments, put them in a single Word document attachment, or number the points so that the recipient knows you got everything. When there is a succession of emails, indicate "1 of 4," for example.

No time to respond fully to a long email? Reply to the sender that you received the email and indicate when you will be responding. Nothing is more discouraging than feeling ignored.

Just because something can be forwarded doesn't mean it should be. Remember, too, that a recipient can forward your email, and you have no control at that point.

Patience is a virtue. Not every email gets delivered. This happens more frequently than we would like to admit. Offer people the same grace that you would like to receive on email responses.

Pick up the phone if you don't hear back after a couple of tries. It's not fair to assume that, for example, your email must be treated as top of the list, especially dealing with attorneys and physicians.

Sometimes postal mail and faxes arrive at an office before your email. Unless it's an emergency, responses should be taken in order.

Remember that the person reading your email has only the words on the screen. Now think about how much our tone of voice impacts our message, so beware of sarcasm. Consider, for example, how many ways we can interpret even the simple word, "please."

For me, the "E" in email represents two essential reminders. First: edit, edit, edit to be sure all your facts, grammar and punctuation are correct. Second: Email is eternal. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2015.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

11 Comments
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Emails between professionals doesn't always have to be stuffy and sign off be stale. You can show warmth, personality and passion for what you do and for the person you're communicating with. After all they may forget what you said but they never forget how you made them feel.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I don't think a salutation is necessarily required for every email. Sure, for the first email in a thread to somebody you don't interact with on a daily basis, put in a salutation. But feel free to omit it if you're replying to something the other person just asked.

What annoys me personally in emails:

Putting your reply at the top. The correct way is to quote the fragment you're replying to and put your reply below it. If you put it at the top and don't even cut down the email, I can't tell what you're replying to.

"Cleverly" putting your replies at the bottom but not actually quoting the stuff above, so I can't even see which parts of the text are yours and which ones are the previous sender's.

Not including the required context when forwarding a mail from a thread that I was not already on. Nobody wants to read the entire thread just to see what you mean by "Please see below", and I have decided that it is a waste of time to read it at all.

Putting me as a To even though there is nothing in the email which I care about or even want to know about. To means that the recipient is the direct recipient of the email and that it is being sent for a reason. If you use it as if it's a Cc, I will start ignoring you.

Conversely, putting me as a Cc and then later complaining when I didn't act on the email, even though it's your own fault for not putting me in To.

Hijacking a thread with an irrelevant discussion. Create a new thread instead.

Conversely, creating a new thread to continue another thread. Use the existing thread instead.

Using "Reply to All" for every single email.

These are some of the real rules of email etiquette. Basically it all comes down to understanding the medium you are using, what the different things mean and then using them like they were intended.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I don't think a salutation is necessarily required for every email.

I personally don't like it when there is no salutation at the start of an email. I understand other people don't do it, so I don't make an issue of it, but I think it's more professional to always use a salutation. I always use one, even if the other person isn't.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

You have to understand the point of view of the receiver. Same as almost any communication really. The trouble is I often find myself asking, "how do you imagine I can possibly know what you are talking about?"

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I always use one, even if the other person isn't.

See, that is the kind of KY behaviour which tends to piss me off when I see other people doing it. If someone is talking with a certain level of formality, you should try to notice and follow.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I think that the level of formality really depends on who you are addressing the email to. Of course when I'm writing to my friends I don't use formality such as Mr. or Mrs. but I do use that when I am talking with colleagues or people who I conducting business.

Regardless of the formality, I almost always include some sort of salutation and close the email with with my name. If I'm writing to a business and there is an ongoing conversation via email I always include the previous emails because I need to assume that they may not remember or know about the previous conversations.

I think the main thing to be aware of is how the other party views emails. If they are very informal they may not look at formality as a good thing and if they are very formal you can be sure that being formal will not upset them.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

See, that is the kind of KY behaviour which tends to piss me off when I see other people doing it. If someone is talking with a certain level of formality, you should try to notice and follow.

Ironically I can't tell if you are criticizing my continuing usage of a salutation when the other person isn't using one, or criticizing their lack of a salutation when I am using one.

It really could go either way, which is why I don't make an issue of it. Both ways are equally valid in their own ways. I just use a salutation as it's not likely to cause an issue for someone who doesn't use one, whereas not using a salutation can cause an issue for someone who expects one. I just also feel it's more professional. But to each their own.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I try to use emoticons more than words. A picture tells a thousand words. ????????????

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Putting your reply at the top. The correct way is to quote the fragment you're replying to and put your reply below it. If you put it at the top and don't even cut down the email, I can't tell what you're replying to.

Whether you put your replies above or below the last guy's text depends. Where I live it seems Above is universal. I guess the important thing here is to find out which customs prevail where you live and go with the flow.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

email is also considered as legal document and can be used in court. Even worst, if you say something, you leave no trace except with the other party. But with email, you have black and white evidence. So, think twice before sending out any email or even posting anything online that could result in any issue later on.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

When you have a long list of comments, put them in a single Word document attachment

If you do that, at least have the manners to ask whether the other person can read the document. Don't assume everyone has Word or is able to open the attachment.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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