Email Etiquette

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Simple email etiquette can radically affect people’s opinion of you, as well as changing communication efficiency.

  • Reply All. Do not hit reply all without thinking first. While responding to everyone is often appropriate, getting this wrong can make you look foolish.
  • Changing Subject. If you change the subject matter of an email chain, change the subject line. An email about a major problem with a subject line of "Donuts in my cube" is an extreme example. Keep the original subject included, so "New Sales Promotion" becomes "Product not ready [From: New Sales Promotion]".
  • Adding or removing recipients. If you add or remove recipients when replying to an email, make a note in the body, such as "Adding Fred and Bert", "Removing Alice", or "Copying Product team only".
  • Never 'BCC' & 'To' Together. If you want to copy someone on an email without the recipient knowing, never use BCC (Blind CC). If someone who is BCC'ed does not realize and hits Reply All, it will become obvious what you’ve done. This type of BCC usage always appears sneaky and underhand. Instead, send the email normally, and then forward a copy from the sent items folder.
  • BCC to prevent Reply All. If you are sending to a wide distribution list and you want to prevent an idiot doing Reply All, put all recipients in the BCC list. It is good manners to note who the email has been sent to in the body of the email. This technique can also be used if you don’t want the recipients to know about each other for privacy reasons.
  • To and CC. If you are sending an email to a subset of the recipients, make sure they are in the "To" list, not the CC list. It is also prudent to call out the people you are expecting to take action in the body of the email. So if you are sending to Alice, Bob and Charlie, but you expect Bob to take action, it should be to Bob, CC Alice and Charlie, with the email starting "Bob, …".
  • Prioritize. Only use the High Priority flag when something is truly urgent, and always explain why it is urgent in the email body. A correct subject line is even more critical than usual, and it may be appropriate to include the recipient's name in the subject, such as "Bob, restart server 5 [From: production problems]".
    • Likewise, if something is background information, use the Low Priority flag, as it helps with people’s workload. (One unintended consequence is that low priority is used so rarely it piques people’s curiosity and they are more likely to read something marked low priority than normal priority)
  • Going Off Topic. If you want to send an email that is not work related using work email, then clearly mark it as Off Topic, such as putting “OT” at the beginning of the subject. This should also be done when replying to forums or email groups about something unrelated to the purpose of the group.
  • The Terminator. Never send an email to terminate an email discussion. Examples of this behavior include “let’s take this offline”, “don’t discuss this via email” or similar. Such emails will come over as bullying at best, and sometimes as an ineffective Machiavellian deflection.
    • If the email discussion makes you uncomfortable or threatened, this approach just makes that obvious.
    • If you believe the email thread is unproductive and a meeting would be more effective, just schedule the meeting and let everyone know.
    • If the email thread is inappropriate or offensive, simply state that and optionally what action you are going to take. It may be best to send an email to just the troublemaker(s) rather than Reply All. Always think through your Motivation; are the other people are behaving unreasonably or is it just you are threatened by the discussion.
    • If you feel your inbox is getting overwhelmed, simply ask to be taken of the distribution list.
  • Giving thanks. Putting some type of thank you in your automatic email signature reduces the sentiment to crass insincerity. If you want to thank someone in an email, take the time to type the words, otherwise leave it off. People you communicate with regularly will soon notice a fixed 'Thanks'. Finishing an email off with “cheers” or similar informal greeting can offend some recipients.
  • Mobile Signatures. The default signature of mobile devices that say “sent from my iPhone” or similar provides marketing for the manufacturer but make you look stupid. Either you think using that device makes you cool (it doesn’t) or you’re too dumb to know how to change the message. Instead, change the signature to “sent from a mobile phone, please excuse brevity, spelling and grammar”.
  • Succinct Emails. If you have a short, one line email to send, just put it in the subject line, ending with "(nm)" for No Message. Leave the body of the email blank by removing all text, including your signature. So "Donuts in my cube (nm)" gets the message across without someone having to open the email.

1 Reply All

This advert is a humorous look at the dangers of 'reply all'.

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2 See Also