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Email Etiquette: The Art of Emailing at Work

Updated on January 1, 2010

The Art of Emailing at Work

Like most things people can love or hate, the topic of emails can generate very strong emotions. While some of us seem to relish sending off volumes of emails complete with stupid pet trick u-tube attachments and motivational poems, others dread their overflowing inboxes and mutter about information overload. The latter (let’s call them “Informationers”) wish that the former would understand how busy they are. In their opinion, emails should be used only “professionally” for passing on critical organizational information such as meeting times, training opportunities, and programming updates. The former (we’ll call them “Connectors”) often wish that the latter would just “lighten up”. They would argue that what they do is all part of relationship and morale building.

There certainly can exist a huge divide amongst colleagues concerning email use, and like most divides, it can create misunderstanding and resentment if not fairly addressed. Perhaps it will be helpful from a perspective taking purpose to understand that this issue did not begin with email. Those of us who predate email may remember our parents sternly admonishing us, “The phone is not for talking; it’s for taking messages!”

Of course it is important to remember context. When we were answering the phone while being harassed by our parents, we weren’t at work. Clearly time at work and use of office equipment should be related to the benefit of the employer. But even that perspective does not fully answer the question as to what is appropriate use of email. Both information sharing and connection building are vital aspects of organizational culture and effectiveness. The trick, it would seem, is to establish an email etiquette that manages to incorporate the best of both of these functions.

Thankfully, much of the solution is rooted in common sense. If we think of email as simply another form of communication, we can realize that we know a great deal about communication and what does and does not work. It’s actually when email is treated as somehow another animal for which separate communication rules apply, or for whom the usual rules don’t apply, do we get into trouble. Courtesy, intentionality, thoughtfulness, decency, politeness, clarity, inclusiveness, respectfulness, all are among the components of everyday effective communication and should be applied to all workplace interactions and email should be no exception. Seen that way, there need not be a choice between connection building and information sharing as the two can share a similar process.

Intentionality in emails as in every aspect of communication is significant. Are you simply sending information that you believe the recipient should be privy to? If so, you may not require an extended response, though you can still send it politely. And if you receive such an information email from a sender, you can certainly still acknowledge reception and say “thank you”. Functionality and practicality should never be used as excuses for the absence of civility. It takes less than five seconds to acknowledge an email that takes minutes to read. Those five seconds can be a key component to maintaining a relationship between yourself and the sender, unless you know for sure that they would prefer you didn’t reply.

Intentionality is also something to be considered upon receiving a “connection” email from a colleague. How many of us who complain about how work overload gets in the way of everyday decencies such as supporting each other become irritated when a colleague emails us a “frivolous” poem or thought in the middle of our busy day? “Don’t they know how busy we are and how cluttered our inbox is!” So much is about perspective. If we instead thought about how a colleague took the time to think of us and thought enough of us that they wanted to make us smile, perhaps we would feel differently (and even be more energized to do our work). How might it affect the culture of an organization if now and then coworkers sent out a “thank you” or “good job” email to each other out of the blue?

The flip side of that is true as well. As with verbal communication, simply “email talking” or rambling on indiscriminately at length without considering the timing or needs of ones intended recipient is not appropriate either. Bearing that in mind will help curtail the length, frequency, and content of emails sent so that colleagues don’t begin to tune you out and do have time to perform their work functions.

What follows are some general communication rules and how they apply to email.

1) Don’t yell. (Don’t USE UPPER CASE LETTERS IN YOUR EMAIL or overuse exclamation marks!!!!!)

2) Don’t dominate the conversation. (Don’t send tons of lengthy emails and attachments which may carry viruses. Try to keep your email communication as succinct as possible and avoid run-on sentences and marathon paragraphs.

3) Be clear and upfront about what you wish to convey. (Identify your topic clearly in your email heading).

4) Don’t stalk or be controlling. (Don’t demand a “Read Receipt”).

5) Maintain confidences and don’t gossip. (Don’t “Reply all” unless it’s necessary or if you’re asked, and don’t forward an email unless you know it’s okay with the original sender).

6) Don’t talk just for the sake of talking. (Don’t send emails to any or all staff unless you know exactly what you want to convey and how it will benefit each of the people who receive your email).

7) Think before you talk and don’t quickly react or respond out of anger. Emails are permanent and can be held against you. Consider the implications and consequences of your words. In line with that, re-read emails before sending them as improper spelling and grammar impacts your professional image).

8) Write professionally. Do not use MSN chat style writing at work. Avoid cutesy abbreviations, ("u" instead of "you"), emoticons, and above all else, please don't LOL or LMAO!!

9) Be aware and sensitive about your choices of language and humour. (Harassment policies extend to emails).

10) Only claim that something is a crisis when it really is. (Avoid using the “high priority” function unless absolutely necessary).

11) Be open-minded and curious. (Think of the intent behind the received email and try to see the value in it.)

12) Use your manners. (“Please” and “Thank you” have a place in most non-spam emails).

13) Be patient. (Don’t expect an immediate response as people may not check their email as often as you do, or they may be so swamped they can’t keep up).

14) Don’t ignore someone. (Do acknowledge receiving an email when you can even if only briefly. See rule “11”).

15) Be direct with people. (Don’t use email as a way of avoiding dealing with colleagues or as a substitute for in-person conversation if possible. This is particularly true for issues of conflict resolution).

16) Let it go! (Don’t indefinitely store emails. Clear out your emails periodically and delete unneeded messages.)

The nature of communication through any system has an enormous impact on the experience and functioning of its parts, and ultimately the health and functioning of the system as a whole. Email, as with any form of communication, can serve various important functions. It can serve as a vehicle to efficiently and quickly convey vital information. And, it is also a tool that can enhance equally vital connection and team spirit. Whether emails are burdensome, or are experienced positively and contribute to team functioning and growth, is dependent on people simply following common sense rules about communication that they likely already know.

Theo Selles, M.Sc.



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    • Theo Selles profile imageAUTHOR

      Theo Selles 

      9 years ago

      Thank you.

      I appreciate you taking the time to read it. Is your article based on email? I'd love to read it.


    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I have bookmarked this hub - very needed information. Well done! I have been writing an article to correspond to a college course I taught about communication. Email is an important topic. Thank you for sharing.


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