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Email Etiquette

Due to popular demand after last week's FAQ on the technicalities of email, this week's topic is a less technical aspect of email: etiquette.


Why do I need to care about email etiquette? Isn't email supposed to be informal?

When you use email for business, it should not be treated informally. Obviously, if you know the person, you can tell whether or not they mind informality, but if you are not sure, it is best to err on the side of caution and politeness. In general, you should always use standard grammar and punctuation, and spell everything correctly. In this age of spell-checkers, there is no excuse for having a misspelled word in any email; it makes you look lazy.


You should also keep your use of language polite, and if you are communicating in a professional setting, even formal. Granted, I purposely use a fairly informal tone with these FAQ emails, but that's just because I'm presenting lots of information and don't want to bore you all to death!


Another important but often overlooked aspect of email etiquette is how much information you provide. When you are emailing someone you don't know, it is important to identify yourself and explain how you got their address. (Of course, if their address is listed prominently as a contact address, the latter is unnecessary.) Beyond that, please be clear about what you want; especially when asking for technical help, be sure to explain in detail what you were trying to do, what step of the process the problem appeared, and what the symptoms are. If you simply say "This link doesn't work" but nothing else, it just means that the person at the other end has to email you back and ask what you meant. (I really did get an email like that once, no kidding!)

I just read an email that made me mad! Why should I bother to be polite when I answer it?

It's especially important to be careful when you are angry. When you see a message that gets you mad, it's all too easy to just smack that reply button and blurt out a harsh response; this may feel satisfying at the time but will almost always get you in trouble later. Even if someone provokes you, it is best to respond politely. I personally find it helpful to picture the person standing right there in front of me, and only write things that I really would tell them to their face.


Remember, something that sounds really nasty might not have been meant that way. Humor in email, especially dry or sarcastic humor, can sound like a personal attack, especially if the two people involved don't know each other well. If you are writing informally, you can include "smileys" to help convey how your words should be taken, but in a business communication they are not appropriate. If you see something that gets you angry, think twice before responding; remember, that email is forever, and a single inappropriate email can be forwarded to a lot of people, and haunt you for years.


However, even when all these basic rules are followed, there are also some common mistakes made by people who really intend to be polite and professional, but just don't realize how some things might come across because of the more technical aspects of email.


What are some of those mistakes?

In no particular order, some common ones are: Inappropriate subject lines; misuse of addresses; inappropriate forwarding; sending attachments without explanation; using all caps, unusual fonts or colors; misuse of message priority; and return receipts.


OK, what about these mistakes? What's an inappropriate subject line, for instance?

Subject lines should be kept short, but still long enough to inform the reader of the main point of the message. Remember, many people have lots of email, and the subject line helps them decide which messages are important enough to read right away, and which can wait, or even be junked without reading.


This is especially important when you are sending a message asking for help from UCS or anybody else. We get hundreds of messages every day, some of which are urgent requests for help, others just ordinary conversation, and of course, like everyone else, we get spam and viruses. A concise and informative subject line is very helpful, while one that is too vague or too long can get your email mistaken for something unimportant, or even spam.


Some examples:

  • Question Too generic. Be more specific; for instance "Question about the latest FAQ"
  • Hello Also too vague for a professional setting. Greetings should come at the start of the message body.
  • Important! This is annoying, and is also used a lot by spammers. Instead, say why your message is important.
  • Hi, I want to know about something you wrote about in the last FAQ This is way too long.

Even worse are messages with no subject at all. That is just plain rude, not to mention the fact that many spam filters regard this as evidence of spam, so your message may not even reach the person you are sending it to.


What about misuse of addresses?

This really covers several different mistakes. The first is sending business email to someone's personal address, or vice versa; while many people don't mind this, enough do that you should be careful. Also, you should be careful when you CC someone on a message; generally, only CC someone when they really have an interest in what's being said. Remember that all recipients of the message can see all the other addresses, so don't CC anything to an address that the owner might want to keep private. As a courtesy, though, you should always CC someone if you mention their name in a message; it avoids the appearance of talking behind their back.


What is inappropriate forwarding?

You should always think twice when you are asked to forward something to everyone in your address book. It is impolite to forward chain letters, virus warnings, or jokes, unless you know that the person specifically likes to receive that sort of thing. Also, in general, it is considered rude to forward a personal message without asking, or at least telling, the person who sent it to you. This holds whether you are forwarding it to only one other person, or to your entire address book.


Also, it should be mentioned that it is considered very rude to make any changes to the original text of the forwarded message without noting it. If you summarize or edit anything anyone else has written, you should very clearly mark which are your words and which are the other person's. On the other hand, there is one case when it is impolite not to make changes; if you are only responding to part of a long message, you should cut out the part you are not responding to, just to save the reader from having to wade through lots of irrelevant text. It's very easy when you are exchanging emails with someone to end up with huge, long messages consisting of multiple layers of quotes from older messages; it's best to just cut that stuff out.


What do you mean by sending attachments with no explanation?

If you send an email with just an attachment and no text, it will likely be mistaken for a virus. It is common courtesy to explain why you are sending the attachment and what is in it; be sure not to sound too generic, or the reader still might think the message is a virus. Remember that From addresses are easily faked, so the person on the other end doesn't know if the message is really from you. Try to include their name, and possibly make a bit of conversation, and include some specifics about the attachment, such as the format it is in. (For instance, Microsoft Word, or plain text, or PDF, or whatever.)


What's wrong with using all capitals?

It is a long-standing tradition on the Internet that all capitals means that you are SHOUTING! Some people don't seem to be aware of this, but most learn quickly; thus, using all capitals generally means you will be seen as inexperienced, or maybe a slow learner. Using all lowercase text isn't as rude, but it isn't a good idea in a formal email. It's best to use standard capitalization, to make yourself understood most clearly.


What about fonts and colors?

Many email programs let you send colored or styled text in a variety of fonts. The problem is that not all email programs interpret these the same way, so something that looks nice when you send it can come across as ugly or even unreadable at the other end. If you want to come across as professional, avoid getting fancy; keep your text black on white, and use a standard font.


What do you mean by misuse of message priority?

Most email programs let you label a message as high, normal, or low priority. This is a nice feature in theory, but has been overused by spammers. Remember how annoyed you were the last time you opened a paper-mail envelope marked "URGENT" only to find an advertisement? I recommend not using this feature at all, but if you do use it, remember that you should judge by how much importance the reader will give the message, not just how much you want them to read it.


Why did you include return receipts in the list of mistakes? What's wrong with them?

Almost all email programs let you request a return receipt when you send a message; this just means that you include a special hidden header in your message that asks the recipient's email program to fire off an automatic notification to you when they other person opens the message. However, almost all email programs also offer a setting to ignore return receipt requests from others, and in most cases, this setting is turned on by default. Most likely, the person on the other end will never see your request, and you will not get a receipt. However, a fair amount of email programs default to popping up an alert box when a return receipt is requested, to give the user a choice of whether to respond or not. This is annoying, and most likely they will choose not to respond; they may even wonder if you don't trust them. I recommend against using return receipts.


Wow, that's a big list of "don'ts".

No bigger than the list of unspoken rules about talking on the phone or face-to-face. The trouble is that email etiquette isn't as widely known, so it's more important to talk about it specifically. Just remember that the most important parts of communication are honesty and openness; it's almost never wrong to ask someone if they understood you, or if they are offended, and it's also important that you feel able to state, politely, if you don't find something acceptable. It's better to have an honest discussion about what is polite and what isn't than to live in fear of breaking some unspoken rule. This holds in any form of communication, not just email.



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