13 Email Etiquette Rules Only Top Professionals Follow

Email etiquette main rules

It’s not always easy to pinpoint what makes an effective email —  even if it’s a simple internal memo. However, this does not make the sender a magician: more likely a consummate pro, who follows certain rules when writing an email.

So in this piece, we are going to deconstruct the anatomy of a good email, and why you would be well-advised to adopt several crucial guidelines. Strap in.

What is email etiquette — and why is it important?

An average office worker receives several dozens emails per day and then spends over 2 hours answering them. Imagine spending 2 hours every day glued to your inbox “reply” button. The least we can hope for in that scenario is that incoming emails provide value.

That’s where email etiquette, i.e. certain guidelines when crafting an email, kicks in. Why is it important? The short answer is: it saves your recipient time and saves you potential trouble. The elaborate answer is…

It helps avoid misunderstanding

In conversation, how you say something is just as important as what exactly you say. Your facial expressions and body language matter. Over email, you’re devoid of that luxury. You need to be clear with your words: your reader doesn’t have anything else to fall back on.

It conveys a professional image

You don’t want to come across as a rookie. Not to your colleagues (especially from some far-flung department where they might not be familiar with your modus operandi), and especially not to your clients — if you work in a B2B or B2C sector.

It protects you from liability

A well-worded email is unlikely to land you or your company into trouble, which might range from a ruined business relationship to a lawsuit — and anything in-between.

13 email etiquette rules you should be aware of

  1. Rely on a proper email address

Captain Obvious? You’d be amazed by how many people fall at that hurdle. I once ran into a young woman who used a soooouuulll@something.com email address — for professional purposes.

From that point on I couldn’t shake off the feeling she was not serious about her duties. So when she eventually made a blunder, a little voice inside my head said: “Well, what did you expect?”

Don’t make the same mistake, not with your business email — and not with your personal one either, just to be on the safe side. You never know when you’ll need to cold email someone about a potential job opportunity from your personal email. (First name +) last name + domain is the way to go when choosing your email address.

  1. Write a clear and direct subject line

After your address, that’s the first thing your recipient sees. You need to pass that test, otherwise, your email will either be left unread, or will go straight into the trash.

The worst thing you can do is have no subject line whatsoever: avoid that at all costs. Once that’s out of the way, focus on making your subject line direct and valuable. “Meeting rescheduled” is a bad choice for an internal email. “Department meeting moved to June 1” is a good one.

If you are selling something — or simply want your potential customer to take action — state what they gain from it in the subject line. “Subscribe for a year & get 30% off” is much better than “Help us make our app better by taking a survey”.

Evernote bad subject line example
Evernote’s subject line is muddied. Source: Really Good Emails
Grammarly tries to retain a user via a discount
Grammarly does well to attempt a last-minute save. Source: Really Good Emails
  1. Consider the purpose of your email

Ask yourself the question: “Why am I bothering someone over email?” Once you have an answer to that, you know whether you need to write an email in the first place.

If you do, then you should clearly state what exactly you want from your reader — and when. It might be that you simply want to keep the recipient in the loop — then have the courtesy to state you don’t need him or her to take action at all.

“No action needed” email
How to inform your superior/colleague
  1. Use proper structure

Your email should be centered around one main topic. Don’t try to cram more than one: your reader will get confused and might easily lose interest and desire to act on your email. If you absolutely must discuss several issues, condense them into bullet points for your recipient’s convenience.

In their recent study, Constant Contact found out that it’s better to aim to have an email no longer than 200 words — that roughly translates to 20 lines of text, which is considered the optimal length. You should break these 20 lines in 3 paragraphs, and make sure to start each paragraph with the main point thereof. No one canceled the F-shaped reading pattern.

F-shaped reading pattern
Example of and email with an F-shaped reading pattern
  1. Exercise caution with humor

This one obviously depends on how well you know your recipient — and the overall context of your email. However, a good rule of thumb is to avoid using humor if you are in doubt whether it’s appropriate.

Why? The obvious reason is not everyone might find funny what you find funny. The more obscure rationale is that humor — especially sarcasm — is hard to convey in written form. Much like with the tone of your email, you don’t have facial expressions and body language to articulate you’re joking — only black-and-white words on a screen. The worst thing that can happen though is that your humor is understood — and found offensive. Which brings us to…

  1. Be mindful of cultural differences

In Germany, emails are formal, they cut to the chase, and don’t include personal messages. In the rest of Europe, emails take on a warmer tone. In the US, emails are a quick and efficient form of communication — to the point they might come across as rude to other nations. In Africa and South America, it’s common to catch up on your last meeting and be more personal — before discussing business.

Moreover, you’d be well-advised to find out as much about the recipient’s background as you can: so as not to accidentally wish them a Happy Easter, only to find out they are muslim. Or not to send a bunch of emojis to someone nearing retirement.

You get the idea. Study how cultures differ. Know who you write to before you hit that “send” button, and craft your email accordingly.

  1. Pay attention to attachments

Avoid sending large files as attachments: instead, upload them to cloud storage (Dropbox, Google Drive, whatever tickles your fancy) and send a link instead. Make sure you share the viewing/commenting/editing rights with the recipient before sending, though.

Mention your attachment in the email itself too, for 2 reasons: so that the recipient doesn’t overlook it and, if you use a smart email service (like Gmail) to actually remind you to attach a file before pressing “send”. Spare yourself the blushes of talking about the attachment without sending one.

Finally, if you need to send a large file as an attachment (say, an image) use a compressor tool (such as JPEG Optimizer or Tiny PNG), so that the email is not too heavy.

Gmail attachment
Don’t forget to attach the file: Gmail will remind you to do that
  1. Know when to use carbon copy (CC)

Don’t overuse this: you don’t want to crowd people’s inboxes with emails they are simply cс’d in. However, a carbon copy is valuable in the following instances:

  • You want to keep someone informed — without them actually needing to do something.
  • You need to get the ball rolling on the matter you are writing about — and so you include a superior in copy.
  • You are helping out a colleague of yours who’s away and who you want to keep in the loop.
  1.  … and blind carbon copy (BCC)

A blind carbon copy means the recipient won’t see there’s someone else who got the message. This field is useful if the email you send is of a sensitive nature, and the person in BCC needs to be kept up-to-date (he or she can be a stakeholder, for example). Other instances where you might rely on BCC include:

  • When recipients don’t know each other, so it’d be awkward for both of them to see each other in the email.
  • When someone introduced you to the intended recipient, and you want to remove that someone from the thread.
  • When you need to confirm you’ve sent an important email, in case it comes up later.
Gmail blind carbon copy field
Blind carbon copy field in Gmail
  1.  Forward emails carefully

Remember that not all emails were sent to be made public. You are the intended recipient, not someone else (unless he or she is cc’d in, of course). Plus, you should always make a judgment call on whether the info in the email is of private nature — before forwarding it. Other things to keep in mind when forwarding emails:

  • Once again consider whether you create value for the recipient.
  • Sum up what’s been discussed and state what you want from your reader: it’s simple manners, so that he or she doesn’t have to read through the entire thread.
  • Edit out all the junk information (forwarding signs, subject lines, other email addresses and previous commentary).
  1. Stick to widely-accepted response times

If the email was from your teammate, you should aim to respond within the same working day. If it was from a colleague from another department, reply within 24 hours. If it’s from someone outside your company, get back to them by the end of the week. And, needless to say, if the email is from your superior — or someone from senior management — you need to be snappy, replying faster than you would to your own teammates.

  1. Add the recipient’s email the last thing

To avoid any mistakes in the email address — and to save yourself the blushes of accidentally sending an unfinished email — type in your intended recipient’s mail after you’ve done everything else.

  1.  Include a signature

It makes you come across as professional, and creates a trust bond between you and your customer. A full signature is not that important for internal emails (unless, of course, you are writing to someone new), but it is 100% crucial for client-oriented emails.

So take a few extra minutes to include your full name, job title, company name and contact information — and place it right before the email footer. You can even set it up once in your preferred email service, and have it inserted automatically each time to save you time and trouble.

The 5 Don’ts of email etiquette

  1. Respond while emotional

We’ve all been in a situation when an email drives us nuts. Whether it’s because someone took too long to respond, or because he or she was of little help, or maybe the info you received was simply unpleasant.

The worst thing you can do is vent your spleen in a return email. It’ll do little to right the wrongs of an already dire situation, but you’ll definitely get into the reader’s blacklist. Clear your head first, sleep on the email perhaps, then reply.

  1. Write over weekends

We get enough emails as is during the course of a normal working week. Respect your recipient and his personal time. He or she might not do anything about the email you sent on Saturday morning, but they’ll definitely remember you sending it — and creating that nagging feeling of having to work on a weekend.

  1. Hit “reply all” instead of “reply”

Much like with copy, this just creates an additional email in everyone’s inboxes. Unless you are absolutely sure everyone in the thread needs to be kept informed of another development, don’t press “reply all”. Turn off that function in your email service if it’s switched on by default.

  1. Be annoying with follow-ups

If you are sending a marketing offer to a potential customer, give them until the end of the week to respond. If he doesn’t, gently remind him about the offer next week. If that still doesn’t elicit a response, assume he’s not interested and move on.

Put yourself in his shoes. Would you like to receive endless follow-ups? Would that make you feel more like buying from the company that sends these? That’s the thing.

  1. Send an email without proofreading it

This goes back to making you look professional. A single email mistake will instantly lower your credibility and disrupt the flow of the letter — to the point where the recipient might give up on it. Even if they don’t, that single mistake will stick in their memory long after they are done with the email. Your life will be made substantially either if you simply install Grammarly, or even rely on Gmail’s in-built spellcheck system.

Wrapping up

While email etiquette might seem like a chore, a formality, you’d be wise to stick to it, especially in a professional environment. Not because everyone is doing it (they don’t), but because it actually makes life easier, both for you and your recipients.

It conveys respect, professionalism and helps you carry out your duties more efficiently. At least some of the advice above is not obvious at first glance too: certain tips and tricks will surely come in handy when you sit down to write your next email. We’ll recap what you should and shouldn’t do below.

Do’s

  1. Rely a proper email address.
  2. Write clear and direct subject lines.
  3. Consider the purpose of each email.
  4. Use proper structure.
  5. Refrain from humor.
  6. Be mindful of cultural differences.
  7. Pay attention to attachments.
  8. Know when to use carbon copy
  9. …and blind carbon copy.
  10. Forward emails carefully.
  11. Stick to widely-accepted response times.
  12. Add the recipient’s name last.
  13. Include a signature.

Don’ts

  1. Respond when emotional.
  2. Write over weekends.
  3. Hit “reply all” instead of “reply”.
  4. Be annoying with follow-ups.
  5. Send without proofreading.

Did we miss any crucial rules? What drives you up a wall in emails you receive?

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