E-mail Etiquette

Minding your manners when using e-mail pays off.
Magazine Contributor
10 min read

This story appears in the September 1997 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Long ago, before there were telephones, a woman traveling overseas cabled her husband for permission to buy jewelry. Her husband responded: NO. COST TOO GREAT.

However, technology then was less than perfect. So instead, the woman received this message: NO COST TOO GREAT.

Today, most of us use e-mail for messages. But although technology has advanced beyond cables, small details still affect the way the recipient sees and interprets a message--sometimes to your detriment.

Using e-mail effectively and professionally is essential to your business success. Here are some tips to get the most from your e-mail.

Easy Does It

Several options make e-mail more convenient for you and your recipients.

  • Use settings and preferences. Look for an e-mail package that lets you select specific settings and preferences that affect all your e-mail activity. This way, you won't have to repeat steps every time you send a message.
  • Include your real name in your return address. Suppose you received a message from "12345.678@abc.com." How easily could you determine the sender's real name? Unfortunately, some e-mail providers assign users "nonintuitive" names such as this.

To help the recipient quickly and easily identify you, set your "return address" to include your real name as well as your e-mail address.

  • Use a signature file with your messages. As an e-mail recipient, you might want to see more than just message text and a return address from a sender. For instance, you might also want to see the sender's telephone number and mailing address.

Most e-mail packages allow you to include this information through a "signature file." To do so, you simply use word processing software to create and save the address information you want to appear on every e-mail message you send. Then go into your e-mail software and specify at the appropriate menu the name of the file you created in the step above.

Most e-mail packages have a "preferences" menu where you would type in this information, as well as specify your return address as described earlier.

After completing these steps, you need only create and send a message to a recipient. Your e-mail package will automatically attach your signature file information to the end of each message.

Test your changes by sending a message to yourself. To make the test valid, treat yourself as an external recipient; that is, include the "@xxxx.yyy" domain name information in the address. Doing so ensures your message reaches you via the Internet.

  • Use the "subject" line. By doing so, you allow the recipient who is pressed for time to quickly select and read only the messages that are important to him or her. Also, limit each message to a single subject.
  • If you are testing your e-mail, inform your recipients. As a courtesy, put the word "TEST" in the subject line to save the recipient from having to open the message.

Best Impressions

What kind of impression is your e-mail conveying? Use the following tips to make sure it's a good one.

  • Check spelling. Although e-mail is less formal than traditional mail, appearance still counts. Many businesspeople interpret a misspelled message as evidence of carelessness. Are you sure this is the image you want to convey?

If your e-mail software offers a spell-checking feature, use it. Otherwise, you have two alternatives: Either use a dictionary, or compose your message with a word processing package and use its spelling checker. Then copy (or cut and paste) the text into your e-mail application.

  • Don't yell. When composing your e-mail message, use upper- and lower-case typing. Using only upper-case letters is considered the equivalent of SHOUTING!
  • Use "emoticons" and acronyms where necessary. Written e-mail communication cannot convey gestures, vocal inflection or body language to the recipient. Sometimes this can lead to misinterpreted messages. To address this shortcoming, e-mail users have developed a set of symbols dubbed "emoticons" to convey nonverbal intent. Common emoticons include:

I'm grinning as I write this sentence.

I'm laughing out loud.

I'm rolling on the floor [laughing].

:-) denotes a smile (Turn your head 90 degrees to the left to see why.)

;-) denotes a wink

Being familiar with common acronyms used online will save you typing time:

  • FYI
  • ASAP
  • BTW (by the way)
  • IM[H]O (in my [humble] opinion)
  • Phrase your messages positively. It's important to avoid harsh or negative wording. Phrasing a message positively elicits a better response from the recipient and ensures a greater chance of clear understanding.

For example, consider the following pairs of phrases:

1. "We cannot permit you to use this material."

2. "We regretfully are unable to permit you to use this material."


1. "We cannot ship your order until your account is current."

2. "Once your account is current, we can ship your order."

Each sentence in the pair has the same meaning. However, the second one sounds friendlier and will create a better impression with the recipient.

Playing It Safe

The process of sending and replying to messages is rife with opportunities for error. Here's how to make sure the appropriate message is sent to the right person.

  • Keep it blank. When composing a message to send, leave the "recipient" field blank as long as possible. By doing so, you will prevent a premature sending of your message. Even if you accidentally hit the "send" key or click the "send" icon, your message will go to no one. Once you are satisfied with your message, select your recipient and send.

What about an e-mail reply? When you reply to a message sent to you (as opposed to composing a new message from scratch), your e-mail package will take the original sender's name and make it the recipient. Therefore, the "recipient" field will be complete even before you start typing the text of your reply. You could, of course, delete the recipient's name on replies.

  • Check how you are replying to messages. Most e-mail packages allow you to include the sender's original message in your reply. This type of reply method is called "reply include." It makes it easier for the original sender to remember what you are replying to. Also, you may be able to specify who should receive your reply, specifically:
  • only the original sender ("reply to sender")
  • everyone who received the sender's message--that is, all the other original recipients, plus all the carbon-copy recipients ("reply all")

If you wish to avoid embarrassment (or worse), pay attention when sending a reply. Do you disagree with a message that was sent to you and dozens of others? Then be sure to "reply to sender" rather than "reply all." Otherwise, your reply will go to all the original recipients, making your private disagreement public.

There are generally four options for sending a reply:

  • Reply to sender (no include)

*Reply to sender include

  • Reply all (no include)
  • Reply all include
  • Use the "unsending" message option when necessary. Some e-mail packages allow you to unsend, or "take back," a message you have sent. This feature provides a measure of safety. However, not all e-mail packages have it, and even those that do allow you to unsend your message only under certain conditions. Therefore, you're still far better off sending an appropriate message in the first place or not sending one at all.
  • Understand the out-basket function. To save telephone costs and time, many e-mail packages allow you to compose and read messages offline. When you are offline, messages you want to send are usually placed in an out-basket. This feature is handy; however, be sure you understand how your package handles out-basket messages when you connect. Will your package send your messages automatically as soon as you connect, or must you send each message individually?
  • Use e-mail appropriately. Although e-mail is convenient, some formal situations still warrant using standard mail instead of e-mail. Don't use e-mail to terminate someone or when sending a letter to someone against or by whom legal action might be taken.
  • Keep security limitations in mind. Think of e-mail as an electronic postcard, and write your message accordingly. You have no idea how your message gets to your recipient or who could be reading it. In fact, if you misaddress your message, it could end up being read by a network administrator.
  • Remember that deleted messages may not be. Many computer systems are backed up to tape for security reasons. Therefore, even if you delete an incoming message, or a copy of an outgoing one, that message might still exist on a backup tape somewhere. Think carefully before sending messages.
  • Be careful with file attachments. The "file attachment" feature of e-mail allows you to send data or programs to a recipient rather than just message text. Most e-mail packages that support file attachments do so via one of two standards: MIME or UUCODE. When sending a file to someone, it's a good idea to find out which standard he or she is expecting. Otherwise, your file may appear on their system as unreadable garbage. If that person doesn't know, ask to talk to their network or systems administrator.

Attachments can cause other problems, not the least of which is the risk of your computer becoming infected with a virus. To protect yourself, refrain from opening files as attachments. Instead, save the attachment to disk, then scan it with antivirus software first.

  • Use message history logs. Some e-mail packages allow you to monitor what happens to e-mail messages you send via a history log. This log keeps track of the time and date you send your message as well as when (or if) your recipient reads your note, if they forwarded it, or if they deleted it. This kind of message history is more likely to be used in internal e-mail as opposed to external (to the Internet) e-mail. Still, a history log could be useful in protecting you in disputes over who said what and when.
  • Forward e-mail from lesser-used accounts. At times, you may have more than one e-mail account. For example, as a consultant, you would naturally have an account through your own company. However, if you were spending a lot of time with a client, you might also have an e-mail account on your client's system. Rather than checking both systems for incoming mail, consider forwarding your mail. Then, messages to you at your own system would be sent automatically to you at your client's system without additional effort by your sender.
  • Answer your e-mail. Incredibly enough, many companies fail to do so. What kind of impression does this make on potential customers? If you are unable to answer as quickly as you would like, ask if your e-mail provider supports "autoresponding." With this function, when someone sends you an e-mail, your system automatically replies with a form message thanking them for their message and giving whatever standard information you wish. Obviously, this option is less desirable than a true reply, but it at least lets your sender know your e-mail address is valid. If you are unwilling to do either, stop publicizing e-mail as a way to contact your company. Do it right or not at all.

E-mail can be a tremendous productivity tool. However, be sure you use it correctly so you convey the most professional image possible.

Contact Source

Calvin Sun is the founder and principal of Technology Horizons, a consulting and training firm in Paoli, Pennsylvania. He is the author of several articles on effective communication skills and computer problems. He can be reached via e-mail at csun@sprynet.com.


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