E-mail communication has not changed dramatically since its inception; the format is essentially the same as memos and written professional letters. Even behind the scenes, HTML coded emails remain coded as if it was still the 90’s. Millions of people use this form of communication every single day, and it’s still mostly just text. Early in my career, I used to become really stressed out when I tried to respond to e-mails. I was curious as to if there’s a consensus on what type of language you’re supposed to use. Do you sound like a robot or do you show a little personality? Can you use a little humor, or do you have to be deadly serious? What about emojis? Lets discuss.
What is a good subject line?
A subject line should be an overview of your email, in a few short words. Think of the subject line as a hashtag, but for email instead of Twitter. It’s metadata to tell the recipient what your email is about. Keep it short, sweet and to the point.
What can you say in emails?
In the professional world, there’s a good chance you’ll be sending an email to someone who either you don’t know, or someone who may not remember you. It’s wise to let people know who you are and why you’re emailing at the start.
Also on that same theme, it’s a good idea to let the person know at the beginning of the email what the purpose of the communication is, especially if it’s going to be a long one. Walking your recipient through the content right off the bat means that they’re more likely to read the entire email. It's also good to have a solid salutation. More on that later.
It’s also a good idea to use generally positive language. Using words like “don’t,” “can’t,” and “no” can really bum people out. There’s often a way to say what you’re trying to convey without using negative language.
What can’t you say in emails?
Anything written about email has to mention sensitive information. In only the last year, we had more public email scandals than we can count. It’s easy to forget that private correspondence can become public, but, as with anything on the internet, you lose control over information the second it leaves your computer and enters The Cloud. And that doesn’t even include the possibility that you could accidentally press Reply All, and send a whole group of people your private thoughts.
Finally, it’s always a bad idea to write anything that has any sort of negative emotion behind it. Don’t email angry or annoyed. Your recipient will pick up on your negativity and you could face professional consequences.
Can I be funny in an email? What tone should I set?
Generally, no, but as with most correspondences, you should be thinking about the context behind the email and the recipient when choosing your language. It is acceptable to be a little funny when you’re intimately aware of the recipients sensibilities, say, if you’re emailing a friend. Text is a difficult medium through which to convey humor, though, and it’s really easy for a funny joke to come off as just a weird thing you decided was appropriate for an email or even a passive aggressive note.
As a matter of fact, it’s probably best to trend towards technical writing in an email. There are whole guides on how to do this, but briefly, try to use the least, most precise words you can use. The idea of using technical writing is to decrease the chance of the reader misconstruing any of information.
When in doubt, it’s good to trend formal. Imagine you’re hand-writing a letter to your parents. Proofread your email with that in mind before you press send, especially if you’re not good friends with the recipient.
Can you use emoji or gif in an email?
Probably not, but it does depend on your profession and, again, the recipient. Language is always evolving, and if the professionals who you are corresponding with are younger and grew up with emoji, it’s probably ok. But just like with the use of humor in emails, emoji and gifs are subjective, and it could be hard to tell how someone is reading your yellow smiles or robot faces. To guarantee the most clear and effective professional email, maybe leave the emoji for your group text.
Do you say “Dear” anymore?
This was the letter writing format that I was taught in first grade. People are divided on this topic. On the one hand, there’s a level of intimacy surrounding the word “Dear,” and people are writing less formal emails these days. On the other hand, the word “Dear” is the standard that has been set for letter writing. Dear has become a term of endearment over time. The general rule for starting an e-mail is to simply start with the recipient’s name, or to use a general salutation such as “Hello” or “Hi”. Another good rule of thumb here is to match the person you’re e-mailing, if you do not begin the exchange. If your intended recipient says “Greetings” or “Dear” it is generally fine to respond in kind.
How about Salutations or signatures? I learned you should say “love,” at the end of a letter when I was a kid.
I don’t think you should say love. I always thank the recipient for their time, offer “Best Regards” or a simple “Thank you.” Sometimes I’ll even say that I’m looking forward to their response! There are a million equally valid options, and the Clean and Proper blog has a bulleted list of them. Just make sure to change your phone default signature from “Sent from my iPhone.”
What do you do about attachments and links?
There are limits to what the technology can handle, and limits to people’s patience for a number of attached files. Gmail can only handle 25 megabytes in an attachment, and also, people simply don’t like receiving large or multiple files. Use attachments only when sending single small files, like a resume, for example. If it’s necessary to send many small files, do the recipient a favor and compress those files into a zip file. If you’re sending bigger, more important, or a large number of files, it might be better to use Google Drive, dropbox, or a USB drive.
How often should I check my email?
Only as often as you need to. If you’re waiting on an important email, it might be wise to check a little more often, but since we have the technology to be constantly checking our emails, it can be as distracting as Twitter or Facebook. It’s a good idea to only check your email a few times per day, usually between already existing breaks in work.
How quickly should I respond to an email?
It’s probably best to respond as soon as you check your email and see that you have received the email. I said above to only check your email a few times per day, but that does include checking your email every day. Responding within 24 hours is the best choice. If you don’t have enough information to respond within 24 hours, it’s best to send an email explaining your situation and promising to respond soon. And if you do that, make sure you follow up on that. Write it down! If you’re out of town or on a self-designated time away from technology, both professional email servers and personal platforms have “Away Email” settings.
And if you do forget that you received an email and you take your time responding it’s probably a good idea to address it and apologize for the long response time. Just don’t let it become a regular occurrence! You don’t want a reputation for forgetting emails.
Emails don't have to be scary, but it's definitely a difficult medium to get a handle on the language norms. Don't forget to press send, and let us know if this post helped you out. Lets discuss over at Twitter and Facebook!