A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. This essay is an interlude, an article that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight, or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And one thing everyone ought to know is how to write a useful email without causing undue offense.
So let’s break down the problem: emails come with different rules than speaking aloud. Specifically, you have to be precise, you have to be concise, you have to correctly use punctuation, you need a passing knowledge of grammar, and you have to make sure that your message isn’t lost in the text. Particularly in professional settings, it is unwise to send poor-quality emails — people judge you for shit like that. It’s equally unwise to screw up emails in your personal life, because friendships end on the pyre of miscommunication.
With these dire warnings firmly in mind, let’s take a look at a short guide to email etiquette in 2019.
Eight Things to Do
Here’s a list of things you should always do when writing email:
- Always give your emails a subject line. This should be a concise summary of what the email is about. If your email contains kitten pictures, the subject line should read “Kitten pictures!” or something very similar. A good idea is to always include a search term that is relevant to the content of the email in the subject line. For example, if you’re emailing budget projections to your boss, make sure your subject line includes the words “budget projections” so that he can search for and find your email amongst the clutter.
- For professional emails, always use professional greetings. A professional email always opens with “Hi, insert name here,” or “Hello, insert name here,” or “Good morning/evening,” or if you want to be super-polite, “Dear insert name here.” Unless you know the recipient on a personal level or work in a flat office hierarchy, use Mr. or Ms. followed by the recipient’s surname, not their first name.
- Always double-check the recipient’s name. Nothing says “I’m a sloppy idiot who shouldn’t be trusted with large responsibilities” more emphatically than messing up someone’s name in writing, particularly if you’re responding to something they sent. Make sure you’ve got the name right before you hit send.
- Always check for attachments. If you’re planning to send a file to someone, make sure it’s attached before you hit send. This will keep you in the good graces of the recipient, because it’s annoying to wade through an inbox to find two separate emails for only one file.
- Always make emails as short as possible. Nobody has time for a six-page essay in their inbox. Say what you need to say as fast as possible, as completely as necessary, and then stop. Stick to the subject you wrote in your subject line. If you find yourself writing paragraphs, you need to just talk to the recipient in person.
- Always sign your email. Even if it’s just a quick dash of your name, nickname, pseudonym, or alias, always sign your email. For professional emails, also include your phone number, job title, and preferred email address (yes, even if it’s the one you sent the email from in the first place). It’s easiest to set up your email so that this is done automatically.
- Always proofread. I know, I know, some of us aren’t great at spelling. That’s ok. Just make sure you correct all the red-squiggle-underlined words before you click “send.” And always check your grammar — the blue-squiggle-underlined grammar corrections make as much difference as the spelling corrections. Remember, in a professional environment poor spelling and poor grammar mean you’re sloppy. You don’t need that reputation.
- Always respond to email. It is 2019. You can download email to your smartphone and Dick Tracey wrist computer with the click of a few buttons. You have no excuse to not respond to any email in a timely fashion. None. None at all. Get that shit done or be prepared for your boss, coworkers, friends, family, and acquaintances to be pissed at you. “I was too busy to respond,” is not a valid response in a world where you are connected 24/7. Your time window for responding to any email without losing face is about a day. Any longer than that and you’d better be sick, dead, or out of a coverage zone.
Nine Things to Avoid
Here’s a list of things you should always avoid when writing email:
- Avoid hitting reply-all. Especially when you’re sending a nastygram, but also in every other case where the entire recipient list does not need to see your message, do not hit reply-all. Reply-all is the bane of inboxes, the prompt for many an embarrassing moment, and the source of much miscommunication. Target your emails only to the people who need to see them.
- Avoid all-caps. In the modern world of text messages and email notifications, all-caps is the equivalent of shouting at your recipient. Unless you want the recipient to know you’re shouting at them, DO NOT USE ALL-CAPS! See what I did there? I wanted you to know I was shouting.
- Avoid sarcasm. Sarcasm is highly dependent on inflection and tone of voice, and as such does not easily make the transition to text. It’s best to avoid sarcasm over email in general, and never use it in the workplace.
- Avoid humor in professional environments. Humor in general does not easily translate to email. When emailing colleagues, unless you all know each other very well, avoid humor. There are good odds it will be misinterpreted.
- Avoid assumptions of knowledge. Never assume that the recipient of your email knows what you’re talking about. It’s best to quickly and concisely explain the purpose of each email that starts a new thread.
- Avoid nastygrams. A nastygram is an email you write while pissed off. These are cathartic to write, but should almost never be sent. If you’re angry while writing, you will make mistakes, you will misstate your case, and you will make enemies. Go ahead and write a nastygram if it makes you feel better, but wait an hour before sending it and then go back and reread it. If it’s something that has to be said, so be it… but most of the time it’s not.
- Avoid confidential material. Sharing confidential information over email can be dicey — it’s really easy to forward emails, after all. If you have to share something confidential, it’s best to send it in an encrypted file.
- Avoid chain letters. I don’t care if Jesus says to pass it on or you’re guaranteed to win a million dollars if you just forward the message to three friends, chain letters are always either an annoyance or a scam. You have a duty to the community to end them at your inbox.
- Avoid overusing exclamation points! Last but not least, remember that too many exclamation points are a sure sign of a deranged mind. One is acceptable, if you are trying to give emphasis to a sentence! Two is unacceptable in any professional setting!! Three is a sign of insanity!!! Remember that exclamation points are kind of like all-caps — they signal raised tones of voice, excitement, shouting, and declamatory statements. Unless those are messages you want to convey, don’t use them.
The Point and Purpose of Email
To close this out, I find that it’s always best to remember what email is for: email is for the rapid, accurate transmission of simple messages to particular people. It’s not for novels. It’s not for essays. It’s not for anything that takes longer than thirty seconds to read. You can include such things in email… but as attachments, not as the main body.
Email exists because it’s more efficient than meetings. For any circumstance where email stops being more efficient, you’re better off just meeting someone in person or calling their phone. Keep it simple, short, polite, and to the point, and you can’t go too far wrong with email.