Email Etiquette in the Snapchat Era

 

July 2014

All you need to do is conjure the scratchy connecting tones of dial-up or AOL’s perky “You’ve got mail!” notification to remember that email hasn’t always been integrated into our lives as seamlessly as it is now.  Email’s beginnings reach back to its MIT prototype in 1965, to Raymond Tomlinson sending the first network email in 1971 and Gary Thuerk sending the first commercial email in 1978. From there it’s been a steady climb, from the introduction of Microsoft Outlook for MS-DOS in 1992 to mobile email in the present.

Now, the newest generation doesn’t even use email for personal use, relying instead on Facebook, Snapchat, and texting, so as ubiquitous as email is, it’s not always the right medium through which to connect with an audience. However, email still remains a significant aspect of our work and personal lives, so here are some tips for etiquette to navigate the highly variable codes and standards of professional email.

General best practices

Most people are wading through dozens – if they’re lucky – or hundreds of emails per day, so sending a 400-word email to just about anyone is more likely to incite feelings of resentment, rather than resulting in help. No matter the length, make sure that the email looks visually readable – try to avoid blocks of text over three lines. Instead, shoot for paragraphs of one to three sentences, depending on length.

Don’t forget to be specific with your call to action or a request. “Help me” or “Please provide feedback” is not a specific request. State what you need help with or a few points on which you want feedback.

If you receive an email containing information a colleague or supervisor needs to know, don’t just hit “Forward” and leave the body blank – that’s the best way to be ignored or deleted. Instead, hit “Forward” and summarize the most important points in the body of your email. That way your recipient gets the gist, and if they need more information, they can scroll down for it.

Subject lines

We all get so many emails now that concision is a cherished aspect of emails, so use the subject line to get right to the point; that way you eliminate all the preliminary text of “I wanted to get in touch about X aspect of Y project.” Put “Question about X aspect of Y project” in the subject line and get right to the point in the body.

Tone

Email’s biggest drawback is that conveying or interpreting tone is tricky, and since people automatically read emails with a negativity bias, you could send an email you think is very neutral that your recipient would read as negative. Without the benefit of interpreting facial expressions, body language, or voice modulation, we’re left to fill in the blanks, and possibly project unintended meaning onto what we read. This means that an individual’s mood can play a strong role in how he structures or interprets an email, so we must almost overcompensate to make tone perfectly clear.

Let’s say John writes: “We need to talk about your project.” This could read like an ominous sign of displeasure, but he may simply want to catch up about your project. In that case it’s better for John to say “It’s been awhile; let’s catch up about your project soon.”

While we may strive for brevity, in some cases it’s better to add in a few words for clarity, for example if you write “That’s not what we discussed,” the tone sounds hostile, and all that brevity will go to waste clearing up the misunderstanding. Instead, soften it a bit: “I looked over my notes and you mentioned [all these other things]. Do you have some time this afternoon to discuss that?”

Tone also relies on punctuation. Exclamation marks can be tricky, because they can indicate either enthusiasm or shouting. Writing “I’ve got it!” can be construed as an eager affirmation or an exasperated call of surrender.  And just avoid multiple exclamation marks!!!

Even periods can get us in trouble; with the advent of texting, they seem curt and are quickly being swapped out for ellipses or nothing at all. Tempting as it may be to craft emails with open-ended, non-punctuated sentences, don’t. Especially in business, it comes off as sloppy.

Emoticons

Though emoticons have a long and interesting history, there’s still no consensus on whether they are unprofessional or a necessary evil, but let’s face it: we’re going to use them anyway, so we might as well do it right.

First, the nitty gritty: :) turns itself into an emoji in some systems, but in others, that emoji just looks like a “J.” Don’t use emojis – just use the good old fashioned colon-close parenthesis and add in a dash for a nose if you like. But don’t use it if you’re sending a request you think the other person won’t like. “Sorry, but we’ll need you in the office Saturday at 5 am :-)” looks insincere and won’t boost morale.

Second, in business emails, stick only to :-). Using other emoticons to convey true emotion can look trite; does reading :-( in an email make you think the other person is truly expressing sadness?  And unless you’re on close terms with a recipient, just don’t ;-).

Finally, don’t go overboard with your emoticons; you should convey your tone clearly enough through your words that all you need is one emoticon – maybe two – per email. But refrain from using emoticons if you’re emailing someone you don’t know or pitching a journalist with whom you are not close. And in any emails going outside your organization, ruminate on whether those emoticons are truly necessary, or if they’re just compensating for unclear writing.

Instant Messaging

Email grew in tandem with instant messaging, which moved into the mainstream consciousness in 1997 when AOL introduced AIM. As IMing made its way into the workplace, it became just as valuable as email – and almost as common. Though most of us use both throughout the day, the two are not interchangeable; IMing can get annoying, especially if both participants are within earshot of each other.  Here are a few basic rules of thumb for IM vs. email:

Email if it’s: high priority; someone you don’t know well; a superior you don’t interact with regularly.

IM if: you need a quick answer; have a close working relationship.

Reply all

Unless it’s a collaborative project or addresses something that all recipients need to know, don’t reply all – too many “reply alls” in an inbox equals a greater chance of those emails being ignored. And if lots of people reply all to an inane email, don’t reply all to tell people to stop hitting “reply all.”

Also to avoid: cc’ing your supervisor when you and your colleague can’t agree on something; it’s passive aggressive and won’t help your case. If you must involve your supervisor, reply to your recipient with “Let’s ask our supervisor to make sure we’re all on the same page.” Then, craft an entirely separate email addressed to your supervisor, cc’ed to the person you’ve been emailing, that directly and fairly summarizes the situation.

In an age where anything you email can be retrieved and reviewed, “think before you email” is the most important mantra. Before you send your emails, think about if a transcript of your emails was released to the public for some proceeding – are your emails professional? Thinking about the daily implications – and big picture ramifications – of what you send can help you remain an effective communicator.

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