Email etiquette

Email etiquette

Not every email merits the chance to be read the second time. Therefore, it very important to get it right the first time. A few tips to make sure your emails don’t end up in the ‘trash’

Sunil Kumar R, S Lakshmanan

Etiquette is defined as the code of ethical behaviour regarding professional practice or action among the members of a profession in their dealings with each other. In these days, whether we like it or not, many people do take email etiquette very seriously, particularly if we are writing emails for business.

Most of the communication between companies is taking place via email due to the various advantages that email facility offered. There is hence a compulsory training to be imparted to fresher who join the corporate world.

Email is cheaper and faster than a letter, much less formal than a written letter, are usually short and concise, less intrusive than a phone call, less hassle than a fax. Using email, differences in location and time zone are less of an obstacle to communication. Emails never get lost or get damaged due to natural calamities and save us a lot of time than normal snail mails

Tips on writing a professional email

Subject line: Recipients scan the subject line in order to decide whether to open, forward, file, or trash a message. Write a subject line that accurately describes the content, eg ‘Deadline for project A’ instead of ‘deadline’. This will become more important when mail threading happens in multiple forwarded mails.

Layout of emails is something few people pay attention to, especially if their system uses text only. However, even with simple text a sensible layout can make the whole thing more readable. Above all, we should avoid writing emails that sprawl all the way across the screen. Those are very hard to read and to be able to see everything properly as text.

Font of email should be same throughout the email unless there is a change required. In the professional mail, Arial or Times New Roman fonts should be used and use of any fancy fonts should be avoided. Similarly, font size should be maintained uniformly.

Body of the email should start with a brief history of the email’s purpose because most of the readers have to read dozens of e-mails a day. If our message runs longer than two or three short paragraphs, consider either editing the message, or provide an attachment.

If we think the mail has become complex, please put one subject in one mail so that reader will readily answer it. Bulleted points could be used to show main ideas.

If the email is very long, and we have more subjects, then break mails into mail one of three, mail two of three and mail three of three, so that the reader is aware that they will be receiving three continuous email.

Please avoid ‘all capitals’ (it looks as if the writer is yelling at the reader) or ‘all lower-case letters’ in the mail. There are certain other ways to convey our emphasis to the reader such as adding ‘*’ before and after the important word eg ‘Kindly collect the *licenses* on or before November 8, 2008’.

As a general rule, avoid email abbreviations and chat room acronyms such as ASAP (as soon as possible), IME (in my opinion) F2F (face to face) etc. Personalising our emails will save it from being discarded as junk. Personalisation is also a good communication tool. People like to be addressed by their names and become more open to our mails.

When replying to a complex email, eliminate all information not necessary and leave only the sections of text that are related to our reply which will save our reader’s time when reading our email.

Use ‘To’ and CC lines: To differentiate between people who have action items in an email and people for whom this is merely informative, use ‘to’ and ‘CC’. We can filter mail by whether we are on the ‘to’ line or the ‘CC’ line and know which ones we need to act on and which ones to only read/review.

If we are offering urgent information that requires immediate response from the other person, prefacing the subject line with ‘urgent’ is a good idea. Eg ‘Urgent: CEO visiting our branch tomorrow’.

If we are offering non-urgent information that requires no response from the other person, prefacing the subject line with ‘FYI:’ (for your information) is a good idea. Eg ‘FYI: Updates of the new team members’.

Our intention of writing email should be made clearly to the reader at the end. Eg, if we need any help from reader, please end the email requesting ‘please help me immediately’ or just write ‘mail me whenever free’.

We know several people who even print out their email to read it. Try to avoid using colour text so that when the recipient takes the print, it may be not legible. So use bold, italics, different fonts etc to make difference.

Remember to use polite words such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and mean it. We may never know how the reader would interpret our sentences. So stay on the professional side as the tone of our voice is missing, so what we think is funny or sarcastic may come across as insulting or rude to the receiver. So, if there’s a chance that your message could be taken the wrong way, don’t do it.

Add a signature block with appropriate contact information. In most cases, this means our name, designation, business address, and phone number, along with a legal disclaimer if required by our company. Including a telephone number in the signature of the email is important as this will give the recipient the chance to telephone us if necessary. If a reader is well known to us, we should avoid using complete signature block with company address, phone number etc. The footer of email could have necessary words (e.g. save trees, print this page only if necessary).

Please reply promptly to serious messages. If we need more than 24 hours to collect information or make a decision, a brief response explaining the delay should be sent to the other party. Run the spell check, which is very important in all professional emails. We may be the head of a company but the spelling mistake will create bad impression when the reader reads it.

Never write an email when angry, upset, or otherwise not in total control. Edit and proofread before hitting ‘send’. Fill the email id of the sender last after writing the full text of email so that even if we hit the send option by mistake, it will not be sent.

‘Out of office’ message settings should be activated while we are on short vacation. The message should necessarily have an alternate contact number and email id our colleagues and the day when we will resume office. Timing of our email is very much important. Please avoid sending emails that coincide with the Monday morning rush or Friday afternoon lethargy.

It always pays to do things right the first time, as not every email merits the chance to be read the second time. It’s either the ‘reply’ button or the ‘bin’; just a few rules in between can make the difference.


(The authors work for a private pharma consultancy in Bangalore and could be reached at These are their personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of their company)