Saturday, October 24, 2009

e-Mail Etiquette

Sometimes, in the stress and pace of our daily work, we forget to exercise a few simple communication etiquette—etiquette that not only makes us appear more human and professional but also serves the end purpose of the communication. With e-mail still being the most common form of business etiquette, e-mail writing and its nuances are skills we should all be proficient in.

Having taught and developed Business e-mail Writing Courses in the past, certain incidents brought back those rules I had painstakingly researched and compiled into short, digestible courses.

Some rules I had included in what was called the e-learning Power Pack!

Rule #1: Check and recheck before hitting “Reply All”

Today began with a mistake I inadvertently made—broke a serious e-mail etiquette. I hit the Reply All button without a thought when I had been drilling into learners the importance of using this feature sparingly. I seriously think Outlook should pop-up an alert message when anyone tries to avail of this feature. This feature is the cause of endless misunderstanding and mis-communication.

One of the mail recipients kindly pointed out my faux pas. I was deeply embarrassed that this very basic e-mail rule should have been ignored by me. Only to realize that he had done a Reply All himself. :)

Rule #2: When pointing out mistakes, avoid the cc feature

My first boss used to tell me, “When pointing out errors, do so in private unless the mistake is so heinous and has such a wide impact that you need to keep people in the loop. And when offering praise, cc the whole world.” And this has stuck with me. An error pointed out in private takes on the connotation of someone genuinely trying to help you overcome your shortcomings. The moment you make it public, it becomes a case of finger pointing and intentionally trying to demean another.


Yes, that sounded exactly as if I had screamed at you. But this is one of the most important e-mail etiquette we, as business professionals, need to remember.

Use of All Caps in an e-mail is equivalent to screaming. And using All Caps in a mail that has multiple people on cc is equivalent to screaming at someone in public and can lead to serious actions should the recipient choose to take offense.

Many often try to emphasize a point by using All Caps but this argument would not hold if s/he is in the senior management position. To say, “I did not know the rule” would seem immeasurably foolish, and to say "I knew it and used it deliberately" is downright stupid.

If you feel the need to emphasize a point, word offers super features: Bold the text you want highlighted, use different fonts, use a mix of serif and san serif to set apart titles, sub-titles and body text, different font sizes, color…etc.

Rule #4: Try to respond within two hours at least (Maybe, that should be one!)

The e-mail as a form does not require immediate response. It does not pierce your consciousness and demand attention as the phone does. But it is often a polite way to communicate if you know the person at the other end is likely to be busy. An e-mail respects a person’s time giving them time to respond at their pace.

It is quite possible, however, that the e-mail may demand a response that cannot be given within two hours. Then, etiquette demands that the recipient drop a one line stating the expected time of response. This is reassuring to the sender, shows respect, and acknowledges the mail.

However, an e-mail that is a Request for Help should be responded to as soon as possible. Even if the request is invalid or unreal, explain that and send out a response. Nothing is more insulting than to have a genuine request mail sent by one professional to another ignored.

To ignore a mail of request or plea is equivalent to saying, “I don’t care what professional relation I have with you” and is a sure shot way to break trust.

Rule #5: Type unto others as you would have them type unto you!

A line that I read somewhere and remember for its pithy nature. If we remember this golden rule, we can’t go wrong. No matter where we are in the corporate ladder, how large or important a role we play, it can never harm to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

So, read that mail carefully before hitting the Send button. It never does anyone any good to spread hurt, disrespect, mistrust, pettiness... It does a whole world of good to spread understanding, empathy, trust, respect…

All it takes is a few minutes of your time, a few words, and a little bit of thought for the other person…

Organizational e-mails reflect the culture of an organization.

If more than two of the rules mentioned here are not followed, it is time to think twice about the culture and influence of the place…

A friend once told me of an old Tamil saying that goes, “Go far away from bad influence or enemy”

I agree!

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