Do Your Emails Annoy People? 8 Email Etiquette Tips You Should Know By Now
Before you read this…
In September 2012, I wrote this rant, never imagining that years later, it would rank consistently as one of the most popular posts on our blog. In the interests of keeping the original somewhat intact, it has been updated only minimally here and there—which, sadly, is a commentary on how little has changed in email etiquette.
Also, this was written in response to a rash of truly discourteous people who had come into my client world, from a time when I was much more reactionary to people’s tensions (and much more desperate for work however I could get it). Since then, they have nearly all gone the way of the wind.
Rereading this piece now recalls the importance of refining your business and your clientele to truly embody your brand and positively impact you—and that no amount of other people’s money is worth losing your peace of mind.
Now onto the show…
I hate to do this, but it has become abundantly clear recently that common sense has left yet another area of our lives: email etiquette. Not for everyone, not all the time. Just certain personality types at what sometimes seems the most critical times—when communication would help improve or propel a given situation.
So here is my attempt at improving communication and helping those people who may be genuinely (or blissfully) unaware of how to understand balancing these things via email:
- urgency / time management
- empathy / narcissism
1. You’re not more important than anyone else.
If there is one tried-and-true way to represent yourself as arrogant, it’s to mark your emails as double-urgent so they will be read and addressed first.
It’s a pattern that is easily recognized by anyone who has used email for longer than—12 minutes.
With enough frequency, if you mark even low-priority messages as double-urgent, you may be training your recipients to ignore every Potential Cry of Wolf you’re sending out.
There is one instance where the double-urgent mark is actually necessary: A problem requires an immediate response because it will affect your business’s ability to function, an error of great significance, or a deadline that cannot be moved.
That’s about it.
I would also like to institute a ban on “ASAP,” which rarely if ever is warranted and does NOT in fact mean—for these particular people—”as soon as possible,” but rather “right goddamn now.”
2. Vague subject lines are a cruel ploy and a search nightmare.
You know those conference calls where everyone is searching for that one email? Usually it’s the generic subject line that’s causing the delay.
- Got 5 minutes?
- ABC Company
- Let’s sort this out
- Fwd: Re:
Or how about the person who puts the entire intro to the email in the subject line? “Hi Tim, We need you to make a change to the website as quickly as you can.” This makes my brain hurt.
I mean, seriously?
The subject line of your email should be clear, succinct, and relevant to the contents.
3. Email is consultation time too.
For those of us who charge hourly for consultation time, email has become a way for people to try to get an ear without having to pay for it.
If it takes you an hour to write the voluminous email—or if you send multiple rapid-fire emails with a slew of questions—it takes the person on the other end then quite a while to process through and respond. Right?
That’s someone’s time. Please be respectful of it—perhaps compile your thoughts and questions, then schedule a real-time session instead.
4. Don’t just say thanks.
I thought for a long time that I was the only one bothered by this, but I guess it’s a trend that’s catching on. When you send an email back that simply says, “Thanks,” you’ve eaten a little bitty piece of that person’s day. At high volume, this tendency can become a nightmare.
Luckily, thanks to tools like Slack and other live-chat apps, this is becoming less of an issue. If you sincerely want to thank someone, say something original: “Great job!” or “We really appreciate your involvement!” or if you really want to brighten their day: “Check’s in the mail!”
5. Acknowledge when follow-up is requested.
We’ve all been on the phone and heard this pearl: “But didn’t you get my email?”
If someone asks you a question or sends you some information that will require follow-up, if it can’t be addressed right away, say so. Otherwise, projects are liable to get lost in the shuffle or people are scrambling to find a broken trail of breadcrumbs.
We’re all busy, and no one has time in their day to wonder whether or not the message was received.
6. Reread it at least once before you send – please.
One of my all-time favorite received email subject lines is: “Their is a mistake.”
Since we’re all bound to our phones nowadays, that means our meaty little fingers are mistyping all over those ridiculously small keyboards—and becoming more and more auto-correct reliant. Still, the email you send says as much about you and your brand as anything else you have out in the world.
Even if there are misspellings here or there, make sure the meaning is clear.
7. You won’t win an award for sending the most email.
If you’re one of those people that tends to shoot out rapid-fire emails in a two-hour period, think about how you could condense those emails to avoid inundating recipients’ inboxes. In many cases, if the tasks are similar, the text of the emails could probably be grouped into larger emails before sending.
Don’t use emails to parse out your brainstorming. I once freelanced for someone like this, who used email as a personal white board.
- Email 1, 10 AM: I think we should spend Wednesday talking about such-and-such. I will send you a calendar invite. –Francine
- Email 2, 10:02 AM: Calendar invite.
- Email 3, 10:07 AM: On second thought, let’s see if Susan is available. I will email her.
- Email 4 (CC’d, from Francine), 10:07 AM: Susan, I’m CC’ing Sarah here. We’re speaking on Wednesday about such-and-such. I will send you a calendar invite so you can join us.
- Email 5 (CC’d, from Susan), 10:11 AM: Francine, I can’t do it on Wednesday, but Thursday would work. Can we do it then?
- Email 6 (CC’d, from Francine), 10:11 AM: Susan, Thursday works! I’ll send you the revised calendar invite.
- Email 7, 10:12 AM: Susan is not available on Wednesday, but she can do Thursday. I’ll send you another calendar invite.
- Email 8, 10:13 AM: Calendar invite.
- Email 9, 10:17 AM: Actually, I realized you probably don’t need to be on the call with Susan, so you can ignore the last email.
- Email 10, 11:01 AM: I spoke to Susan again. She thinks you should be on the call. So please don’t delete that calendar invite after all. I’ll resend it in case you deleted the email.
- Email 11, 11:04 AM: Calendar invite.
I don’t know if that’s email schizophrenia or email sprinting, but DON’T. It drives people NUTS. If someone does that to me—and with this particular person, I learned to simply wait, not to enter the stream of her consciousness until I was sure she was done. I would then send all the related emails back en masse with a single all-encompassing subject line.
- Email 12 (to Susan & Francine), 11:17 AM: I will speak to you both on Wednesday.
- Email 13 (CC’d, from Francine), 11:23 AM: Thanks
8. Stop Using Multiple Punctuation Marks – Stop It, Stop It, Stop It!!!!
This is a pet peeve, I’ll admit it. I was an editor for over 10 years, so when I see more than two punctuation marks next to each other, the hair on the back of my neck stands up.
The only time when using multiple exclamation points is necessary is if something really super-awesome happens, like you won the Publisher’s Clearing House, or when you’re telling your team that their hard work resulted in that $5 million contract.
I can’t think of one single instance when multiple question marks are necessary. Here’s what they say, though:
I’m freaking out and incredulous and tense and insecure and worried and this is a VERY emotional email. Can I dump my stress and frenetic energy on you????
Typically, this tactic of getting an immediate response is coupled with the double-exclamation-point-urgency email status, insinuating that one or the other is totally irrelevant.
Oh, the irony.