Get expert etiquette tips on using BCC, mass messages, forwards and more
By Beth Levine Posted July 27, 2010 from Woman's Day September 2010You already know that if you type in all capitals in an email, it looks like YOU ARE SHOUTING. (If you didn’t, see what I mean?) And do I even have to discuss those sickly sweet chain letters to be instantly forwarded to 25 friends or else you’ll have bad luck? (Note to self: Always delete!) But even though we know some of these things, email still feels a little like the Wild West when it comes to manners. It’s time to zoom in on some fine points of how to communicate electronically with grace and style.
The Well-Crafted Email
Email isn’t the place for a 2,000-word opus. If you’re writing to a close friend you haven’t seen in a while, it’s one thing (but really, if you have that much to say, why not pick up the phone?). For most emails, keep the message as brief as possible, with the most important part at the top, says Judith Kallos, founder of NetManners.com, a website dedicated to helping people write courteous emails. Large blocks of type are difficult to read onscreen—especially if the recipient is trying to read your message on her BlackBerry or iPhone. And though you may not be likely to use bullets in personal emails, bullet points can be your friends if you’ve got a lot to write for a work email. “Visually they don’t look like too much to tackle, and subconsciously the recipient thinks she can acquire your points in little tidbits, making her more likely to read your whole email,” says Kallos.
Another thought: Leave the IMHO (“In my honest opinion”), RUUP4IT (“Are you up for it?”) and other acronyms to the teens. “Type like a grade-schooler with poor grammar, typos, juvenile jargon and incomplete sentences, and chances are your point will be lost,” says Kallos. Remember, in an email, text is all the recipient has to go by to decipher your intentions and meaning.
Once you’ve written your email, give it the TMI (Too Much Information) test. Ask yourself: What would happen if my boss saw this? My husband? My children? “Oversharing can come back to haunt you in the most embarrassing ways,” says Sue Fox, author of Business Etiquette for Dummies.
And while you’re at it, think twice before pressing Send on anything written in anger. Then sleep on it. It often comes off much harsher than intended, and once it’s out there, there’s no taking it back. Ask yourself if you would ever say this to the person’s face or on the phone. No? Then don’t send it.
The Well-Crafted Response
Respond within 48 hours. If you can’t get to it within a day or two, email back promptly and tell the sender when he can expect your reply. If you are the sender, wait the same amount of time before following up. “We’re all doing a million things, so let’s give each other a break,” says Chris Brogan, president of Human Business Works and coauthor of Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation and Earn Trust. “Yes, the Web moves at warp speed, but not every email can be answered immediately, especially if you want to give or receive a well-thought-out answer.” (If your message is urgent, use the phone or mark the email as priority.)
Some other things to keep in mind: Go easy on the Reply All. When you receive a group email, respond to the sender only, unless it affects everyone involved. Most people don’t like their mailboxes to get jammed up with multiple responses. Once you respond, no need to respond again…and again. “Thanks for lunch.” “Enjoyed it, let’s do it again.” “Yes, let’s. I appreciated it.” “I’m so glad.” If you’ve said thank you or you’re welcome, it’s enough. Chitchat gets annoying fast.
The 411 On…
Emailing thank-you notes. If you’re just thanking someone for picking up your kids, email is fine—although a phone call would be better, says Kallos. (It shows you made an effort and aren’t just taking her for granted.) Other times, only a handwritten card will do. Thank-yous for gifts or for extraordinary acts of kindness need to be handwritten. “Would an email reflect my sincere gratitude as much as taking the time to purchase the card, write my note and address the envelope, pay the postage and send it off? No, it wouldn’t,” she says.
Sending personal email (or surfing the Web) at work. Don’t expect privacy. A 2006 study by the American Management Association and The ePolicy Institute found that 76 percent of American businesses monitor workers’ online activities. Therefore, ixnay on bidding on eBay or sending personal email via the company’s server. (Plus, there’s always the chance an email can go astray.) As for sending email from your personal account while at work, you know your company’s vibe best, but “in general, the equipment and Internet time belong to your company, so using them for personal purposes probably violates company policy,” says Fox. While most companies cannot read your personal account (such as Gmail or Hotmail), some companies have invested in technology that records every keystroke that leaves the building, says Brogan. It’s best to check the company’s employee handbook to see how your company handles personal use of its computers.
Forwarding chain letters and jokes. We’re all overwhelmed by the amount of email we have to wade through. Don’t add to the misery unless you are really, really sure the recipient would get a kick out of it. And if someone asks you to cease and desist, please comply. (Note to my old high school buddy with the trigger finger on all things adorable: I am on my knees begging you to stop.)
Using the BCC. If you’re sending out a mass email to people who don’t know each other, respect their privacy by hiding their email addresses. Put your name in the “To” box and everyone else’s in the quaintly named “blind carbon copy” (BCC) slot. Visibly listing their email address in with a group of strangers will make the recipients wonder what other privacy issues you may not respect or understand. This is the only time you should use the BCC. Any other time, it’s a blatant betrayal of confidences. It’s not OK to secretly include someone on an email that is clearly none of her business, especially if it contains private information.
“A friend of mine emails every day. It’s too much. How can I make her stop?”
“Take your time responding. Make your comments brief and polite, but don’t encourage her by asking questions that she could answer. If she still doesn’t get the message, say, ‘Thank you for your note. Glad all is well, but I’m overwhelmed right now with work and family so I don’t get much time to chat. I appreciate your thinking of me!’” says Fox.
“When I get a phone message, I answer with an email. Is that OK?”
You’re being lazy. If you can take the time to email, you can take the time to pick up the phone. Email is not an excuse to avoid human interaction—that is, if you are serious about forming solid relationships. When you simply can’t talk, it is acceptable to email back to tell the caller you got her message, and specify a time when you will phone her back.
“Friends forward me ‘must read’ messages. How do I know if they’re true?”
Whether it’s that chopsticks contain carcinogens or opening an online greeting card will then send one to everyone in your address book, alarming messages abound. Look them up on Snopes.com, a site devoted to proving and disproving urban legends. (For the record, the government is not going to start charging for every email sent, nor is Bill Gates going to give us $250 if we forward the message.)
Five Non-negotiables: Never…
1. Check email when you’re with other people. Or text, IM or check your PDA . Unless it’s your kid letting you know something is wrong, when you choose technology over your companions, you’re telling them they aren’t important to you. And that’s just plain rude.
2. Email a condolence note or a group thank-you note. Some things will always call for individual, heartfelt attention that shows some effort.
3. Forward political or religious rants. Unless it’s the focus of the conversation at hand or you are sure the recipient is interested, don’t send it. No one was ever converted by forwarded proselytizing. In fact, it’s a great way to lose friends and not influence them.
4. Snoop through your loved one’s email. “Reading your husband’s or kids’ emails without their permission is a major breach of trust,” says Chris Brogan. “If you have trust issues, sit down and talk with them— don’t sneak around behind their backs.” The only time you can check out your kid’s correspondence is if you believe she’s in imminent danger of some sort, such as communicating with someone she doesn’t know.
5. Send anything racy on your business account. Off-color messages can be construed as creating a hostile work environment, and open you to dismissal. (You may want to think twice about sending “adult content” through your personal account, too. You just never know.)