“Can u hlp me plz?” – A guide to business email etiquette.

Are the emails you send really appropriate to a business context? Find out about the unspoken rules which govern email etiquette.

By Thomas West

The dawn of the Internet has led to a revolution in the way we communicate with each other in both our personal and professional lives. Documents, figures and graphs that would once have taken days to travel through the postal system can now be sent instantaneously through cyberspace at the click of mouse. This factor has helped to make email the most wildly used communication mechanism in modern business. However it is important to remember that whilst one of the main attractions of email is its convenience, hurried, poorly written or badly thought out emails can be extremely damaging in a business context. Just as business letters follow conventions and etiquette, the format of business emails follows a subtler, but equally important set of rules. Below is a guide on how to write effective and professional emails that will get the results you desire more quickly and conveniently.

The Subject Line
Whilst this often seems somewhat trivial, a good subject heading is one of the most important parts of any email and acts much like the headline of a newspaper article, competing for attention in your recipient’s inbox. Always ensure that the subject line of your email is direct and relevant to the message. Given the huge amount of emails that modern business people receive everyday, emails that arrive entitled “no subject” or “Hi” can be deeply frustrating, and may be looked over in favour of other emails which make their intentions clearer. If practical, try to include required actions such as “Expenses form – please review”, but avoid making the heading too long. These fields are not emails in themselves and if your Subject Line is so long that falls out of the side of the recipient’s inbox, they will have to open the email to fully read it, thus defeating its purpose as a headline.

Whilst emails, even in a business context, are less formal than letters, an element of formality is advisable. Although it has now become acceptable in most instances to address even those who you have not written to before by their first name (particularly if you are replying to an email from them), you should always use the “Dear” prefix when addressing someone for the first time (e.g. “Dear Tim” not just “Tim”). If the email is particularly important, it is often advisable to revert to the “Dear Mr / Mrs” format just to be on the safe side. Always remember to sign your name, even if it is implied in your email address, and included contact details.

When speaking directly to each other, various external factors such as tone of voice and body language confirm that our words are being interpreted as they should be. This is not the case with emails, and thus every effort must be made to ensure that the words you have chosen do not carry any unintended emotional connotations. Try reading the email from the point of view of someone who does not know the thought process behind the message, and check that it sounds as you would like it to. You should take exactly the same care over this as you would over a business letter.

Whilst the level of formality of your language will depend on the nature of the email and seniority of the recipient, always avoid using instant messaging abbreviations such as u, plz, coz etc. Even when writing to someone you write to often, these abbreviations can carry the connotation that the reader is not important enough to bother writing the whole word. Remember to always check your spelling and proof read for mistakes your spell checker may miss.

Anything else?
Remember that business emails form chains and are often forwarded to other people. Be careful what you write even to your closest colleges lest your boss discovers it copied at the bottom of a long string of emails a week later. Precisely for this reason, it is usually considered polite to check with the original sender if you intend to forward their message to anyone else. If you add recipients to a group email list mid way through a conversation chain, ensure that your email states who has been added. This both helps to avoid embarrassing others on the list, as well as reassuring other respondents that those who are copied in are copied in for a reason. Finally, remember that whilst formality and courtesy are important, emails are not meant to be novels, and that you should keep your message as direct and relevant as possible. Following these basic rules should ensure that your emails are received, understood and acted on quickly, ensuring that email remains a useful tool, and not a loathsome burden.

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