In today's fast-paced work environment, the way we communicate has evolved rapidly. With the rise of various instant messaging platforms such as text messaging, Slack, and Zoom, it's easy to forget the importance of a well-crafted professional email. While these newer communication methods offer immediacy and convenience, they may lack the professional touch that a thoughtfully written email can provide. Emails can still be an essential tool for conveying complex ideas, making formal requests, and creating a lasting record of important communication. With all this change, it has become increasingly crucial to remember and practice professional email etiquette in the workplace.
What is email etiquette?
Email etiquette refers to the implicit code of conduct writers use when drafting emails. It can vary enormously according to the intended recipient, who can range from casual acquaintances to formal business readers, but the goal is always to promote clarity, impact, and a feeling of connection with the reader. Email etiquette incorporates every aspect of the email – including grammar, email style and presentation, any visuals included, and more – but the most important element of email etiquette is the text itself.
Why is Email Etiquette Important in the Workplace?
1. Proper email etiquette helps writers retain control over messaging
In this world of texting, tweeting, and emailing, language has changed, which isn’t unusual. I would argue, however, that because of all this texting, tweeting, and emailing, we’ve become much lazier in our language usage when writing business emails. For example, we’re much more likely to use a cliché or overused phrase because doing so is easy. To have proper business email etiquette, eliminating such words and phrases are essential. We may be allowing our readers to decide for themselves what the phrase means, which means that we’re not in control of the document.
2. Proper etiquette helps email writers to avoid misunderstandings
Following directly from the previous point, writers who lose control of their emails cannot reliably predict the outcome from sending the messages. For example, a business email aimed at a colleague or boss soliciting approval or agreement can backfire if the email leads to a misunderstanding based on phrasing the recipient doesn’t understand or understands differently from the writer. Precision and clarity in email writing is a crucial element of professional email etiquette.
3. Proper etiquette communicates more than just the words of the message
Poor email etiquette may inadvertently reveal the writer’s laziness in using a cliché or overused phrase rather than to spend the time and energy thinking of a more precise word or phrase. And what we’re seeing in business is a trend toward using words and phrases that mean nothing at all because they’re so overused. That’s why email etiquette is so important, especially in the workplace.
3 Business Email Etiquette Errors to Avoid
1: Avoid overused words and phrases
Sometimes email writers want to show that they understand the lingo of the organization they work in and that they’re “in the loop.” Other times, they simply don’t think critically about the words they use and that words carry weight.
Consider the now clichéd opening far too many emails (and other correspondence) use: “Hope all is well” or “Hope this email finds you well.” This phrasing shows a lack of business email etiquette. While some writers argue that this is an attempt to show the reader that you care or are interested, because it’s used so often, it falls flat.
When writing business emails, the point is not that words (or phrases) are either good or bad, but that writers should be aware that using overused words and phrases doesn’t present our work (or our thinking) in the best possible light and may, in fact, make us appear to be less professional.
The next time you’re inclined to “utilize” “blue sky thinking” before “moving forward” with your next email, understand that their usage may make you seem lazy or worse, their usage may cloud their meaning. Unfortunately, so many writers in the workplace, lacking confidence in their own writing skills, fall into the terrible habit of using words or phrases that they’ve seen or heard others use, without questioning if these words or phrases actually convey the appropriate idea. More important perhaps is that they don’t question if the words will make reading and understanding the document easier for readers, which is the ultimate goal when writing a business email. Remembering these simple Better Business Writing Skills will help your communication as a whole.
2: Avoid conclusions so obvious they don’t need to be said
One of the more common examples is ending a letter with “Please feel free to contact me if you have questions.” After that, the rest of that final paragraph goes on to elaborate on the times the reader may call and what number; it goes on and on and provides little in terms of important information.
In general, readers will call or otherwise reach out even if you don’t give them explicit permission; in addition, suggesting that the reader may have questions could indicate that you didn’t do your job in ensuring that the document answered all questions.
The question we often get when we suggest ending with a different kind of paragraph is, as you can guess, “Well, how am I supposed to end?” And the answer is this: end with a forward-looking statement or some statement that shows the reader that you are a thinker and that you care about the document and how it, and you and your organization, are perceived.
3: Avoid unnecessary adverbs
Adverbs are a valuable tool in the writer’s toolbox, but they are also often used unnecessarily. If they don’t add meaning, they just add clutter to the message. For a primer on smart usage, read our deep dive into adverbs.
For example, using “current” or “currently” as in “I am currently out of the office” is unnecessary. The reader can figure out that you’re “currently” not in the office even if you didn’t use “currently” simply by the verb tense. The caveat to not using “current” or “currently” is if you’re comparing something historic to the present, but that’s about the only time it should be used.
Indeed, overall grammatical correctness is important in email etiquette. Time tracking platform RescueTime researched email use and found that three-quarters of U.S. workers believe spelling and grammar mistakes are a big deal in work emails.
Remember, email clarity rules all.
The single most important aspect of any professional email (or other) message is clarity. If the reader can’t understand what you’re saying, you might as well have stayed silent. Indeed, the urgency of clarity in communications can trump other aspects of email etiquette, as the RescueTime survey found: “Clarity is more important than formality.”
For more on the importance of business writing, read our article Writing Business Emails and Using Proper Etiquette.