I’ve had a couple of new computer trainees recently who have asked about the “right” way of corresponding by email

Victorians being politeI’ve blogged about this before, but never offered a list of all the things I try to include when I’m training on the subject. Apologies to everyone who’s been using email for years, but there may just be something of interest in this list.

  • Don’t shout. Writing everything in capital letters feels to the recipient as if they are being shouted at (unless, of course, you intend to give that impression).
  • Don’t reveal recipients’ email addresses to each other, unless they already know each other. Click here for a detailed article on using CCC and BCC fields in email.
  • Be very careful of using light-coloured fonts. Not all screens display colours the same. What may be legible on your own screen may be difficult to read on another. Someone sent me an email in bright yellow recently and I had to forward it to myself (with the font colour changed, of course) before I could read it.
  • An email "@" signBe very careful of using weird fonts. What may strike you as an expression of your lovable, wacky individuality might just come across as an un-necessary irritant to your correspondent.
  • Avoid text message-style abbreviations and emoticons unless you know they will be well received and well understood. “LOL, BTW, IMTOU, b4, etc” can be very tiresome to people who don’t use them and don’t know what they mean.
  • Spelling, grammar and punctuation are important. It’s easy to mis-understand the precise meaning of emails and it can be embarrassing and time-consuming replying to an email by asking for clarification.
  • An email "@" signRemember that you can “copy and paste” standard paragraphs that you often need and can even create entire template emails. If you find, for instance, that you are often emailing people with travelling directions of how to find you, then it’s probably worth creating one good set of instructions and then filing it somewhere where you can easily find it to re-use it.
  • Be patient. A lot of people are more-or-less constantly connected to their email and will respond within an hour or so. There are other people who only check their email every day or two, and there’s no law that says your email has got to be answered quickly. I find that if I want a quick response from an “occasional” email user then it helps to send a quick text message saying I’ve just emailed them.
  • Do be mindful of legal consequences. It’s a good idea to think of emails as analogous to postcards rather than sealed letters.
  • An email "@" signDon’t send large attachments unless they are necessary. Some email systems can’t handle attachments larger than 5mb. Click here for more on the subject of large email attachments.
  • Don’t tick the box that requests a “read receipt” unless you really need one.
  • Don’t mark your message as “high priority” unless it really is. I used to have a correspondent who marked every single email as “high priority” and requesting a “read receipt”. Words like “boy”, “cry”, and “wolf” come to mind.
  • An email "@" signDon’t reply to an email by starting a new email. Always, always, “reply” to the email. This ensures that the history of the conversation (known as the “thread”) is available to both parties without hunting through other emails. I have had trainees who thought that it is somehow “wasteful” to include the previous message(s) as it has already been sent at least once. In principle, I suppose that it is, but the inefficiency is almost unmeasurable (and completely incomparable with the waste of time (and temper) caused by having to hunt through other emails to see the history and context of the current message).
  • Victorian danceDon’t use the “reply to all” option unless you really do want all of the people in the “conversation” to receive a copy of your message. One of the things that people dislike most about email is the number of messages they receive just because they have been “copied in”. They don’t know how much attention to give to the message and often feel that they must waste their time reading something just on the off-chance there’s something relevant to them.
  • Do include a subject line. I have always thought that it is a matter of courtesy, as well as administrative efficiency, to give an email a meaningful subject – and I don’t think that “Hi there” cuts the mustard!

You may also be interested in this previous article that referred to email netiquette.

© 2011-2014 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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