Business email etiquette: Less is more



When Ray Tomlinson invented and implemented what we now know as email back in 1971, it was intended as a simple file transfer system that would allow short, basic text communication between computers. He did not realise, at the time, that his invention would become the ultimate killer app, a service used by billions today and which now sits at the very centre of online identity.

Today, email is at the centre of nearly everything we do on the internet. It’s used to identify and authenticate individuals. It’s indispensable in communicating between parties on the internet – individuals, businesses, governments. It’s used for marketing, and everything in between.

Over the decades, every shiny new app has been touted as the “email killer” – social networks, in particular, were once seen as a threat to email’s ubiquity. That never happened, and in a world filled with fake news and all manner of unwanted electronic content, the personal email remains one of the purest forms of communication. Granted, there’s a huge problem with unwanted emails as well – spam – but most email software today is sophisticated enough to filter out most spam before it hits your inbox.

Where humans go, so do their manners. Few online media showcase the weaknesses of human communication as effectively as email does. Whereas social media can be used to present a fake profile of what someone really is like, sustained communication on email will always reveal the real person behind the email address. This is alright when communicating personally or with friends, but business email requires a different etiquette. Here, then, are some suggestions to help your business email habits. You could even condense them into a corporate email policy!

First – in a business environment, no one likes having to read endless drivel. Research suggests that the average person today takes eight seconds to decide whether something is interesting or not. Your email needs to fit into this 8-second window: your reader will scan the email over the first 8 seconds and decide whether to read it, or whether to glibly glance over it and move on. A clear email subject line is vital. You, as the email sender, need to minimise the time it will take the recipient to process your email. Take more time, compose your email more thoughtfully, condense it and make it as concise as possible, read through it a couple of times, ensure it communicates what you want it to say, before sending it. The golden rule here: just enough detail to pass the message, and no more. In general, an email message that goes beyond three average paragraphs is like a handshake that goes beyond the elbow: it has become something else.

Second, cut down on those cc’s! It’s common to see the most self-important email senders adding dozens of recipients to their emails. Usually, one needs only cc a couple of recipients – a cc is a “for the record” copy of an email, and many people filter out emails in which they’re merely on cc, to be read at some future time that usually never arrives. The more the recipients on cc, the longer the response time to the email. If someone needs to respond to an email, they should be on the “To” line. If they don’t need to respond to the email, should they even be receiving it in the first place? If not, slash them out of it. If they do, copy them in but make it clear that they don’t need to respond. There’s no point having 100 cc’s, each of whom then replies to your email, creating massive processing overhead for the email server.

And if you are one of those on the cc list, don’t “Reply To All”! This option probably should be taken out of all email clients, because it’s abused billions of times a day. If the email sender included another party in their original email, it doesn’t mean that the other party is interested in every little reply to the original message. Everyone has seen those endless “Reply To All” spam-like deluges of meaningless email that result when one unwise sender decides to cc everyone in the company.

Open-ended questions in email are the very spawn of the internet devil. Do not end your email drivel with “Thoughts, everyone?” or similar nonsense. If you have a question to ask, be precise and to the point. If that’s too limiting, call a meeting and listen to everyone’s thoughts. If the email has a question that cannot be answered by “yes” or “no”, you blew it – start afresh.

Cut out extra-long threads of emails. It’s normal to respond to a thread of emails that’s up to about 3 emails long. But if you find yourself responding to a business email thread more than 5 emails long, it’s time to call a meeting. Otherwise, all the recipients just get lost in the details, the focus of the thread is lost, and time is wasted.

Use abbreviated emails, please! If your email can be summarised in a few words, just out the message in the subject line of the email, followed by “EOM” (end of message). It saves everyone the time used having to open the email just to read three words.

Business email recipients – respond only if you must. If an email is a response to your earlier email, and is itself merely an acknowledgement of your message, you don’t need to respond to it.

Finally, it always helps to reduce the amount of time spent trawling through business emails. Some people set aside a time in their day – the early morning is a good option, the first 4 hours from when one gets to the office – when they do not open their email at all and focus on work. Remember – no job is about just reading email. So, cut out the email and get more productive!   

The author is an information systems professional