New Year’s Guide to Email Etiquette

Inbox 434O email! O you super-convenient marvel! O you disappointing eater of time!

Are you in control of your inbox or does your heart sink when you open your email? How much time a day, a week, do you spend on reading and writing email messages? How much of that would you like back? If there was one thing you would like to tell all your email correspondents, what would it be?

Email is such a wonderful invention, but it can be used poorly in ways that invade our time and headspace and rob us of creativity, friendship and energy.

There are two basic groups of problems, that both spring from how instant and easy it is to send an email – and this applies to any other instant, text-based, asynchronous communication like text (SMS) messages or Facebook messages (conversational media like instant chat are different because both people are in the conversation at once.)

Email + Emotion = Badness

The first is emotional and relational. Remember that email you regretted sending? Remember the hurtful, thoughtless message you got that soured your relationship with the sender? Probably most of us have at least a few of each.

It takes time and energy to say inappropriate things to someone by post, and you’re more likely to edit and self-censor if you are using snail mail.

It takes way more courage to initiate conflict in person, with someone who can react and respond to your face immediately. We tend to be much more thoughtful and careful with our speech than with email, where we don’t even have to look our correspondent in the eye.

The problem is compounded, of course, by the fact that it’s hard to accurately convey your tone of voice in text, so misunderstandings are much more likely to arise.

The solutions to this problem all come under the heading ‘wisdom.’ Here are some of the principles I’ve picked up over the seventeen years I’ve been using email. There are of course plenty of nuances and exceptions, but you should get the general idea. I’d love you to add to them or debate them in the comments below.

  • Never use email to communicate anything that has emotional content, especially if there’s any potential for conflict, hurt or misunderstanding. Seriously, just don’t do it. If your draft email fits these criteria, picking up the phone will save both parties time and trouble.
  • If you get an email from someone that seems to fit those criteria, don’t open it, or don’t read any further. Pick up the phone and say, ‘I got an email from you that looked like it might be about something we should discuss in person, so I haven’t read it. It’d be great to hear what it’s about.’ Thanks, Sam K for this piece of wisdom which has served me very well.
  • Don’t use email if you’re really just trying to avoid having a proper conversation with someone. That tells you that you actually need to have that conversation, or you’re likely to make whatever awkwardness exists worse.
  • Gmail has a brilliant labs feature (a little gadget in development that you can choose to add to your account in the settings) that can help. ‘Undo Send‘ it’s called. When you hit send, it delays five seconds before actually transmitting your email, and during that time you can hit cancel. I used it at least weekly when I was working as a pastor.

Stop the Spiral with New Etiquette

The second category of modern email woes is about how much time it takes to wade through your inbox and deal with it all.

Again, email is just too easy to generate. A person can send ten emails in a couple of minutes. If each of them has an open question, like ‘What do you think?’ then those two minutes of sending will generate hours of answering.

Chris Anderson, who curates TED conferences, has also developed the Email Charter to stop this spiralling of time-invasion. It suggests community standards for the sending of email that will cut down the time needed to respond. I don’t agree with it all, but I think a lot of it is brilliant and would help us rearrange our time and productivity hugely. Take a look and comment below on the bits you like and don’t.

One thing I like about it is that it appeals to our sense of community and generosity to do our part in solving the problem.

There are tons of great tips for managing your inbox and writing more effectively so your message gets across. I bet lots of you have done seminars on such things through your jobs – can you please give us your best tips in the comments?

I have 9,521 messages in my Gmail inbox, 434 of which are ‘unread’ (which really means unresponded to or I mean/t to action something about them later.) Yeah, I know. So don’t look to me, but if ‘inbox zero’ is a state that sounds attractive to you, check out the Guardian’s recipe for success.

It’s a new year, full of new beginnings (inbox zero may even be one of them – I loved the Guardian tip about declaring email bankruptcy!). If each of us were to adopt one or two new email practices, what should they be? Ideas from you, please!

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13 comments on “New Year’s Guide to Email Etiquette”

  1. Rochelle Reply

    I make it a point to try and avoid saying anything in an email that I wouldn’t want someone else to read. I’ve had a few instances where people I’ve worked with have ‘replied’ rather than ‘forwarded’ and ended up feeling very awkward and that’s been enough of a lesson for me. If I am tempted to write something in an email that could have me feeling awkward, I tend to pick up the phone instead. Or just not write it – which is not a bad thing, either!

  2. Dr GF Reply

    I’m not going to claim to be too traumatised by email-related crises but I do have a few gripes:

    Abbreviated sign offs- BW, VBW, KR etc- if you’re too important to have time to write best wishes, just put your name

    Round robins- not really any less ghastly than the written version- ok for change of address/ party invites/ one-off announcements, not ok for showing off or boring everyone (Even worse are round robins with some parts directed at one or two people eg- ‘Mum and Dad, miss you lots’- yeah but not enough to send you an individual email)

    Oneupmanship- generally in a work context- cc-ing an email to someone’s boss to intimidate or marking it as ‘high importance’/ ‘requiring a read receipt’ (I’ll be the judge of that, thanks)

    Out of office auto replies- ok, I can see they have a function, but they still irritate- it may just be I’ve never had a sufficiently flash job to need to use one

    Excessive replying- ‘thanks for thanking me for the earlier email’ etc

    *Steps off soapbox*


    • not a wild hera Reply

      Thanks for this A+ rant, Dr GF 🙂

      When I was reading it, I:
      a) laughed out loud
      b) got a bit worried by the KR reference until I realised it meant Kind Regards. I too think the sentiment is a little undermined by the abbreviating!
      c) felt sympathetic but also a bit defensive about auto-replies – I found them very handy as a pastor so people would know I hadn’t received their email on my day off (and I wouldn’t feel tempted to check my email in case something important came in on my day off)
      d) was prompted to remind everyone that we cherish differences of opinion and practice here, so it’s good to be a wee bit sparing with the hilarious sarcasm in case you’re accidentally targeting a reader who, say, sends mass emails (’round robins’ in UK English, I gather!) full of bragging about her delightful toddler to family and godparents in the UK… 🙂

      Keep em coming, Dr!

  3. Daina Reply

    Undo send – love it! For me it would be when I realize just after sending that the attachment is not, in fact, actually attached at all.

  4. andrew Reply

    It might be a symptom of a reduced attention span, but if it can’t fit within a paragraph, I’m not likely to read it with the attention it probably deserves. Phone or meet face to face.

    Adapt to the medium. Somewhere between twitter and a door-stop novel.

    Bullet points are your friend (when making points that the recipient needs to address)

    If there is any emotion attached to an email where there is possibility of different views with cooler heads, print it out and get someone else to review it, or leave it until emotions have cooled (at least overnight).

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