Despite the availability of video (at the high end) and texting (at the low end), email remains the most common form of one-to-one internet-based communication, particularly in business settings.
You might think that it’s old hat by now. Email has been around since 1961, believe it or not, before the internet was a gleam in the eyes of the technocrats at the U.S. Defense Department. You might also think that using email is child’s play.
But there are subtleties to all this email business, along with ways of looking good and not so good.
A lot of people let down their hair when firing off an email message, being far more informal than in reports or memos. Email has a conversational feel to it, a cross between a chatty phone conversation and a formal business letter.
It’s generally okay to follow the tone dictated by the internal culture where you work or play. If people don’t capitalize the first letter of sentences or pay attention to spelling, don’t sweat trying to dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s.
But don’t make the mistake of using the same informal tone with those outside your organization unless you’re sure it won’t be misinterpreted. A lot of people get off on the wrong foot by addressing people they’ve never met by their first name and writing as if they never made it out of grade school.
The purpose of email, like all writing, is to communicate. If you overemphasize speed at the expense of correctness, you’ll make your recipient spend needless time trying to decipher what you’re trying to say.
Think through all aspects of an email communication, starting with the salutation. Beginning an email message by using the quaint letter writing convention of “Dear” can make you look outmoded. “Hello, Mr. Jones,” when being formal, or “Hi, Sam,” when being informal, looks better than either “Dear” or not using any salutation at all.
It’s also generally okay to follow whatever convention is common in your organization in deciding whether or how you quote someone’s words when replying to that person’s email. But it’s generally best to place your own words in some kind of context. If you don’t use the automatic quoting feature offered by all modern email programs, you should still remind your correspondent of any previous discussion and summarize the subject matter.
If you do use your email program’s automatic quoting feature, it’s generally best to quote a relevant snippet of a message and place it in front of your response, quote multiple snippets and respond directly under each if you’re responding to multiple points, and avoid quoting the entirety of a long message at the beginning of yours. Quoting your recipient’s previous email at the end of yours just records it without facilitating speed or convenience.
Gauge the email experience of the person with whom you’re communicating when considering whether to use acronyms such as IMHO, which is short for “in my humble opinion,” and emoticons such as <g>, which is short for “grin” and signals that you’re trying to be friendly or tell a joke.
Match the length of your response to how eager you are to converse. A short, polite response indicates you’ve received the other person’s message but need to move on. A longer, thoughtful response indicates a willingness to engage.
You have more options with email closings than with openings. If you’re making a request or filing a complaint, “Thank you” works well. “Best” is a good all-around closing. Some letter closings also work well with email, including “Sincerely” and “Regards.”
Some people choose to dispense with closings as they dispense with salutations, but both are quick nods to politeness or friendliness. At the very least, close with your name or initials. At the other extreme, you can engage the “sig” feature of your email program, which will automatically end your message with your name, title, company name, or whatever other information you choose, which is particularly appropriate for formal email.
If you’re trying to be correct rather than going for a nonchalant style that shouts “I’m busy,” don’t forget to proofread the contents of your email message. Email spell-checkers, like all spell-checkers, aren’t foolproof, particularly with misspelled words that wind up as similar words that are spelled correctly.
Take a look at the headers of your email too. The last thing you want is for a flirty message intended for a single recipient a couple of cubicles down to go to a distribution list comprising your entire company.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or reidgold.com.