Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What Is Proper Email Etiquette?

Has anyone written a standard for emails? I honestly don’t know what is right these days. I looked on line and found a number of decent rules for content: http://bit.ly/1l7GyIQ. (I particularly like the first one, from Microsoft), but none of these links answers the issues I am raising.

For instance, does one have to write, “Dear So and So”?  Does one have to sign it, “Best” or “Sincerely”?  I know that when I email my family I don’t do any of these things.  I always do it on a first email to anyone, but after that, I wonder if it is really necessary.

My emails tend to be brief and often without salutations or closings, especially to people I am in constant contact with for an on-going subject.  I know that years ago, I was chairman of a not-for-profit and emailed a board member who was offended that I didn’t include a salutation and just signed it, “Paul”.  She lectured me through email that I was rude and needed to say, “Dear Sue” and “Best regards”.  She also suggested that I should ask how she is. Is this really necessary?

To me, emails are an abbreviated way of addressing people and issues.  An email is not a formal letter, especially if it is an on-going conversation. If an email is used to send a résumé or to make a proposal, then by all means it is a formal document and should follow the rules of good letters. 
An email should not replace a conversation where it is easy to ask about someone’s weekend (I find when I do this in an email, it is often not responded to).  If you want to chit-chat, the phone is a better medium.

These days, with all the old rules relaxed or eliminated – men wearing baseball hats in restaurants, women wearing flip-flops to the White House, people not giving up their seats for pregnant women, people wearing jeans to interviews – it is hard to know what is right or appropriate.

I would really love to hear opinions of my readers.


  1. Paul, I'm not a big Internet commenter, but I consistently find your posts engaging and interesting, as they raise important subject with extreme relevance to my professional life.

    I think guidelines more valuable than rules in all matters of human communications. If you are sensitive to the relationship and the context, then flexibility works best. A rigid formality won't please everyone, and will make you come off as a prig. Of course, if you are human and flexible, you will sometimes get it wrong, as you did with that board member. However, her response was a call for respect and some human attention, and your reply to that would have meant more than the first email. In conversations, one can typically recover from an well-meant error. To err is human.
    When reaching out to people for the first time in a while, or in a day, I use a salutation, and I slow myself down enough to make a human connection before plowing into my business. It's a conversation.
    People who may be sensitive about status -- this especially includes board members and assistants, should get some overt signs of respect. Sign-offs should not be thought of as formalities, but as opportunities to leave a feeling and have an impact on another human being.

    Again, thank you for the inspiration!



    1. Well put, Mark. I think context is important. And thanks for liking my posts.

    2. Mark - Really like your thoughts/response to Paul's question.

  2. Email is a lot less formal than more traditional correspondences. It's not necessary to write Dear ... or Hi, etc. I still do so on the initial email but know a number of people who do not. When you're inputting the 'to' field it's clear it's meant for that person. I have auto signature so don't really need to sign-off either. I still do in the initial message, but don't think it's necessary in ongoing communications.

  3. For initial emails to those I haven't met I always include a salutation (usually Good morning or afternoon, NAME) and closing, especially in my business development outreach. I prefer when sales reps address me by name; at least it APPEARS to be a more personal note (though I know you can send mass emails with a variable field for the name.)

    Lately I've been getting MANY sales emails with the exact same opening: "I hope this email finds you well." Did someone just suggest that in a course or something?

    1. Thanks, Ed. I find those kinds of openings gratuitous. "Dear Paul, I hope you are having a nice day..." is really B.S. One would not do that in a snail mail letter. Those emails come to me and usually contain resumes. What we all know is that the sender could care less about my day and, in your case, could care less if you are well. I don't mean to be snarky, but it is amusing.

      No reason people can't get to the point, "Dear Ed, I am selling XYZ and would like to take a moment of your time to tell you about it." If it were a letter, that is just how it would start. email should be no different.

  4. Paul,

    I teach classes in business writing. Here’s what I teach my students: it depends.

    It depends on your audience; your assessment of your audience and how you wish to be perceived by your audience; as well as whether or not you hope to be persuasive, or should I say get heard. All these include an assessment of context.

    In a recent class exercise called “writing an email,” I asked students to send me one telling me in no more than 200 words why they could not attend an internal sales meeting because of a conflict with a customer trade show.

    They were instructed to take-on the role of junior sales person in this exercise and at least email-wise, to consider me their district sales manager and meeting host. They were given an elaborate back story involving the purpose of the meeting, their employer’s philosophy about customer service, issues related to their customer, their boss and the trade show.

    Some addressed me in their email as Mr. Stein, some Professor Stein, some as Bob and a few started with “Hey Professor.” Some opened with a statement of the business issue framed in a way that immediately drew me into their thinking. Their customer came first, they told me, followed by well-reasoned support culled from the back story. Others said: “Hey Professor, I can’t make the meeting. My customer needs me next Tuesday.” You can guess who earned “A’s” and who did not.

    The assignment addressed issues one typically confronts in the workplace and with email. Broadly speaking, it was about perceiving hierarchies, writing persuasively and displaying decision making skills to managers. Specifically, it was about clarity and context in a medium that is inherently informal, fast paced and doesn’t hold reader’s attention.

    One the other hand, I once had a client in Tokyo. I was based in New York. Virtually all our communications occurred via email. Soon after arriving on the account, I was reprimanded by my client for the style and tone of my emails. I was told they were rude.

    My problem: I moved too quickly into the issue at hand. (I’m a New Yorker, go figure.) My client expected me to address them more formally -- “Konichiwa Gumbiner-san” -- and to follow with traditional Japanese cultural greetings inquiring about their health and disposition.

    Of course I changed my emails and this continued for my duration on the account, even though I came to know these clients intimately and emailed with them numerous times each day.

    My conclusion: it depends.

    1. Bob, I love your response. I also love the assignment you gave your class. One of the best classes I took in college, certainly one of the most useful, was business writing. All these years later, I still have the textbook. If you look on my Facebook account, you will see a response from my daughter which mirrors what you wrote about some of your students. You will get a kick out of it.
      Thanks for sharing.

  5. Hi Paul, :-)
    Good question!

    I treat emailing as if I were face to face speaking with that person. When I connect with someone I will say Hi and their name, just as I would when I start a conversation with someone in my office or on the phone. I will ask people how they are, I want to know.

    I do my best to write as I would speak, though it will always lose something in translation. It makes the conversation more personal and I want people to know that I am more than just in the process of writing but also of connecting. When I say Hi and Best Wishes or Enjoy Your Day I mean it, it is closure for me to greet someone and wish them well when I leave. The thought does not take that much time to convey.

    I much prefer speaking with someone as to writing, but since writing, emailing, texting, etc. has become our go to way of communicating, I advocate to write as if I were speaking face to face with sincerity in the words I put down, as well as the symbols; to be personal in my communications, :-).

    Sometimes when there is a rapid exchange of ideas, back to back to back emails, then the formalities are not used because we are still dealing from an initial conversation. But if it is hours in between written conversations, I will reconnect with a Hi and leave with a Goodbye.

    Best Wishes,

  6. Dear Paul,

    I hope this comment finds you well.

    Great post, and obviously very engaging!



  7. Paul,
    I don't think the medium (in this case email) is really the determining factor for the format and content of what you say. Instead, I think it is more a function of the particular relationship between the two people (or in some cases multiple people) communicating.

    For example, I think your fellow board member was responding to a level of informality and familiarity that s/he felt did not reflect your relationship.

    On the other hand, your grandma is someone you know very well, but your email to her (bless the old gal, she's on the computer!) will have a very different tone, and will be guided by very different rules, than an email to your sibling or to your adult child.

    An email to someone with whom you have only a business relationship should be all business. Skip the small talk. I do not refer to someone by just their first name unless they refer to me by mine first.

    In all communications, knowing your audience and tailoring your message appropriately, has always worked for me. The medium is a secondary consideration.

  8. P,
    This is a very interesting subject and one I work on with my grandchildren occasionally. I agree that "it depends". With them I would say that if you are writing a thank you note to an 80 year old who bought you a gift, send a hand written note and have it delivered by messenger...........and don't send a condolence note by e-mail. To a fellow Board Member.....you are peers, an e-mail is fine (and who cares how she is?).

    I love your Blog and have just signed up to get it when you send it rather than when I think to tune in


    By the way, this is how I write an e-mail to a friend.


    1. D - Well said. Do they still teach handwriting in grade school? Glad you figured out how to subscribe. :-). P

  9. LOL, My dear Paul ... For all of your points about formal and informal e-mail communications and most of the commentaries posted to your question, I would like to refer all to Barney's very excellent comment. That is, e-mail as if you were speaking face-to-face.

    An opening salutation or closing signature takes about two seconds to include and it adds a unique personal touch. And inquiring as to how somebody might be doing today seems kind of normal and natural to me. But most people don't do it for whatever reasons. Maybe they don't have time for such nonsense.

    The real question for me is ... Who wants to be like "most people"? Bill Crandall

  10. Hi Paul - Great post! Unfortunately, in today's less formal, how-dare-you-waste-my-time, egocentric, soundbite world we're communicating in, the old school conventions you describe are not appreciated. In fact, using a more formal approach in your writing dates you. I try and adapt according to my instincts about the recipient. I'll be more formal if I sense it might be appreciated, otherwise I'm all soundbite, all the time.

    Maybe a good follow-up post could discuss how writing mechanics and grammar are becoming extinct.


    Steve Elser

    1. Steve, you are so right about writing and grammar. I used to save bad grammar and misspellings, but the file got too thick.

  11. Paul, you have an interesting blog. I enjoyed reading your posts. thanks of sharing. And, Congratulations, your blog has been chosen as featured life-skills blogspot authors in my blog. Visit my profile to visit my blog. Keep posting quality posts.

  12. Paul as others commented good topic and POV. Agree with all who point out context and audience is the key factor. Among younger people, an email can be to them a more formal format, given how casual texting has become. But for anyone who used to write actual letters, it can be less formal.

    I think one rule to go by is spell check. Regardless of approach, poor grammar is still a no no.

    Finally, I do wonder about signatures, especially with graphics in them. I've been thinking about adding social media icons to our email signature, vs. just text, but find myself getting annoyed by those same icons coming in from other people and having them turn into attachments, which then get mixed up with actual attachments. Then you don't know what to open and what is a graphic. This may be an issue with only some email systems (it is with MS 360). But still, it does leave a certain impression that the sender either does or does not know what they are doing.

    Next topic: etiquette on blog comments as I may have violated those rules here!

    1. Eric - No rules violation here, that I can see.
      I used to think that putting LinkedIn, FB, Twitter logos was gratuitous, but it has become so normal that I no longer know what is right. Not sure they belong on a resume, though.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

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