E-Mail Etiquette 101

Even though all of us send and receive dozens of e-mails each and every day, many are still guilty of breaking e-mail etiquette rules that, if followed, could help us present ourselves more professionally.

Here is a quick list of tips for e-mail communication:

Summarize your e-mail in the subject line

The recipient of your e-mail should be able to tell what the message is about from looking at the subject line when it shows up in their inbox. They can open your email already thinking about your general topic, which will save them the time and frustration that trying to figure out why you were writing would have caused them.

Be clear about why you are writing at the outset

Just as you want a clear subject line for your e-mail, you want a very specific initial statement or paragraph in the first part of your message. This is the part of your e-mail that is most likely to be read, so be sure to say “I am writing to confirm the time for our upcoming meeting” or “I am attaching this document about XYZ for your review. I need it back from you by the end of next week.”

Try to keep each e-mail to one subject

E-mail is a brief form of communication, and our nature is to scan the message. If too many different topics appear in the communication, then the reader is likely to miss one or more of them and not respond to your requests. If you really must include multiple subjects, let the recipient know by saying at the beginning of the email, “I have two quick questions” so that they know to look for two subjects. Then itemize them by noting them as “#1” and “#2.”

Keep it brief

Just as you want to keep the topic of the email to one subject, you also want to keep the message brief overall. Your recipient will thank you if they don’t have to wade through three pages of your mental dribbling, and you are more likely to get the kind of response you need. If your e-mail gets to be more than a paragraph or two (about the length of one screen on the computer), it is likely too long and you may want to consider editing or creating two e-mails. The alternative to this is to create a document and attach it to a short email.

Don’t get too familiar

Think of an e-mail as a letter that you are sending electronically rather than slapping a stamp  on and throwing in the mailbox. You always include a salutation on a letter, and an e-mail should be the same. As more and more of us use e-mail for professional exchanges, we must remember to include a “Dear Mr. Smith” or (more informally) “Hi Susan.” Err on the side of formality if you are unsure, especially for professional correspondence. Save “Hey there, Mike” for friends and family. Only omit the salutation altogether if (1) you know the person very well and that is the way you typically format your e-mails to one another, (2) the correspondence has gone back and forth quite a bit and the salutations have been dropped, or (3) the other person drops the salutation first.

When you are upset, don’t press “send”

Avoid venting in your e-mails. First, it’s easier to say things in an exaggerated or overly candid way in an electronic mail (a sort of “electronic passive aggressive” way of communicating.) Second, e-mails can be misconstrued for tone and meaning.  Third, e-mails can be forwarded or printed and live forever. (Note: don’t write in all caps. Ever. It’s akin to “shouting” in electronic communication.)

When you very happy, don’t use a smiley-face

You will look a bit too tween-ish if you use acronyms (otherwise known as “initialisms” like “TYYL”) or emoticons (like the semicolon/parentheses smiley-face.) Save those for your teenage nephew or for texting.

Remember, e-mails can live forever

E-mails can be printed or forwarded, so never include anything that you wouldn’t want others knowing. That includes being very sensitive to confidentiality (yours and others’), as well as deciding if you want a written record of whatever you are saying. When in doubt, don’t e-mail if you can call or communicate in person instead. This will eliminate confusion or the possibility of someone later presenting your message as written evidence of what you said.

Proofread, proofread, proofread

Maybe it’s not so important when you are e-mailing your brother in Nebraska, but if you are send professional correspondence, you don’t want typos and mistakes included. Proofread your e-mail just as you would proofread a printed letter.

(photo: Shutterstock)


  1. Avatar Susan Gainen says:

    Great post, Kendra!

    My two cents: make sure that your attachments are pdf’s or other trusted docs (Google Docs) so that in addition to controlling the content that you also control the format.

  2. Avatar Kim says:


  3. Avatar Justin says:

    @Kim If you are typing anything in all caps at any given time, you’re an idiot. It’s even addressed in this article that typing in all capital letters is considered unacceptable.

  4. Avatar John Pint says:

    Two additional pointers I’ve found useful when writing important emails, especially to clients:
    1. Draft the email but leave the “To” field blank until you are completely finished writing. If the recipient is already filled in, there is a bit of target fixation on the “Send” button or a desire to fire off the email as soon as you’ve hit the last keystroke and before serious proofreading and editing.
    2. I often will print a draft of an important email before sending, so I can proofread and edit by hand. I’m constantly amazed at how different my words look on the screen compared to a piece of paper and have often found errors that my eyes missed on the screen.

    • Sam Glover Sam G. says:

      Draft the email but leave the “To” field blank until you are completely finished writing.

      This is something I do, as well, and I’m confident it has prevented me from impulsively (or accidentally) sending many ill-considered or badly-written emails.

  5. Avatar Joe Howie says:

    Then of course there’s my pet peeve, email footers that claim that “any use” of the email by the party to whom it was addressed is “prohibited,” or, even better, “expressly prohibited.” If there’s any legal support for that misleading bit of general legal advice, I haven’t been able to find it. For a fuller discussion, see an expanded version of my Law Technology News article:

    Joe Howie

    NOTICE: Further use of the contents of this posting is expressly PERMITTED. I checked before I sent it and it does NOT contain anything that I’d like to have construed as legal advice, nor does it contain tax advice. You do NOT have to delete it, send it back, notify anyone, or sequester any electronic device which was used to transmit or read it.

  6. Avatar Amey says:

    “…but if you are send [sic] professional correspondence, you don’t want typos and mistakes included.”

  7. We have a free ‘Email Etiquette’ check list which readers might fine useful. It can be download free at http://www.mesmo.co.uk/ It’s an extract of more detailed tips and hints which are covered in ‘Brilliant Email’ and our webinar of the same name.

  8. Avatar Dave S. says:

    Another thing,
    Be careful about the dreaded reply to all. I am especially afraid of the situation of forwarding or replying to an email. There may be an original recipient that you accidentally include.
    I will usually compose a new, separate email (you can always paste in some/all of the text to the new email)- it takes a few extra seconds but prevents mistakenly including someone as a recipient.

  9. Avatar Jessie says:

    My personal favorite is this disclaimer that a former disorganized supervisor added to the bottom of his emails: “Please do not assume I received your email. If you do not receive a response from me, please call me.” In other words, if I forget you or ignore you, which will likely happen, please pretend along with me that emails actually get lost in cyberspace, and expend additional effort to call me now. I found this “disclaimer” to be borderline insulting to the reader. Thoughts?

  10. Avatar Jessie says:

    Great suggestion, Sam. Yes, learning to use the search function would be a good start for this particular individual, as this just reminded me of another of his frequent offenses: replying to email A on a subject I had raised in email B, often explaining that he could not find the other email or remember what we had already discussed in it. By mixing email threads, he then made it harder for me to search emails and track a particular discussion, because the subject matter keywords I so carefully chose were now inaccurate! Needless to say, this was a source of much frustration and miscommunication.

Leave a Reply