If you overdo it, you won’t get the reader’s attention when something is really urgent or important. Opinions vary about whether to keep the thread of all the messages within a series of emails. You do that, of course, by hitting “Reply” rather than “New Message” to respond to the sender. Some people suggest that the person who sent the original message doesn’t need to see it again, but after a topic has gone back and forth a few times, over hours or even days, it’s often helpful to get the whole picture in one email rather than having to go back to the inbox to reconstruct the history.
DO keep your email messages short—no more than a full screen. A long message will fall into the “I’ll read it later” category, which often translates to “never.” If you need to communicate a long message, send it in hard copy or attach it to the email as a separate document. However, in the latter case, first make sure that your recipient has the software to open your attachment.
DO review before you send. Even if you don’t consider the email sensitive, review it a couple of times before you send it to make sure that your tone isn’t brusque or demanding. Often something as simple as putting the word “please” in front of a sentence will soften the tone. If after reviewing the email you’re still uncertain about how the reader may receive it, put it in the “Draft” folder for a while. When you go back to it later, you can look at it with a fresh eye and judge it more objectively. If you’re still not sure, consider having someone else look at it before you send it. You should exercise the same care when you are replying to a message. Also, along with reviewing your message for the appropriate tone, make sure that your reply answers all the questions or addresses the issues the sender raised.
DO respect each other’s privacy. Privacy is in short supply in a world of easily accessible information. Using electronic mail exposes you and your recipients to contacts they may not want. If you’re mailing to a list, use mail merge or send the email to yourself, with the mailing list as a blind carbon copy (bcc). That way none of the recipients will see each other’s email addresses. Also out of respect for other’s privacy, always ask permission before forwarding another person’s email. And never edit or change the original message. When you’re the original sender of a message, and you don’t mind having the receiver forward it, indicate your permission at the beginning of the message.
DO reply in a timely manner. One of the main attributes of email is its immediacy. People send emails because they generally expect a quick response. Respond to your emails, preferably within the same business day but certainly within twenty-four hours. If you can’t deal with the email’s content within that time, reply to the sender acknowledging that you received the message and stating when you will respond.
DON’T confuse informality with carelessness. As in any written communication, the errors can stay around to haunt you for a long time. While most people are more tolerant of the occasional typo in email messages, they will notice consistent violations of spelling, grammar, and structure, and their opinion of you will doubtless be influenced by it.
- Use standard punctuation and capitalization.
- Edit your emails carefully for grammar and spelling. (Don’t forget to use the spell check feature, but don’t rely on it completely.)
- Remember that punctuation misuse can change the meaning of your sentence altogether. Note how punctuation changes the meanings of the following sentences:
A woman without her man is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
You get the idea.
- Don’t use all caps or all lowercase in emails. Use of all caps gives the impression that the sender is shouting, and they’re harder to read.
DON’T use the “Reply to All” feature with reckless abandon. Unless everyone who got the original email really needs to see your reply, simply reply to the person who sent the email. This practice helps avoid needless clutter in everyone else’s inbox and the waste of time reading irrelevant messages.
DON’T reply to spam. Avoid becoming an appealing target to spammers by never responding to spam. Even when you send the “Remove me from the list” message, by opening and replying to spam you are confirming that you have a working email address, exactly what the spammers want to know. Simply delete spam or use a program that filters it automatically.
DON’T circulate emails with offensive or defamatory content. If you receive such emails, delete them immediately and politely ask the sender not to send anymore emails to you. Having those emails in your inbox could cause problems for both you and your organization, particularly if you work for a large company.
Leveraging Email’s Advantages
Even though we all sometimes complain about how many emails we receive, email offers a great opportunity to stay in touch with very little effort. If you are alert to its pitfalls and take the necessary steps to avoid careless wording or thoughtless comments, as well as unnecessarily flooding others with information they don’t need, you can use this tool to increase your visibility and impress others with your efficiency, expertise, and ability to share information. Handled effectively, email remains today’s major way to remain current and in the communication loop.