The unwritten rules of writing work emails

By Hannah Massen

You might think you know all there is to know about emails. After all, you only get 212 of them a day. But chances are you’ve received (or sent) an email like this before, proving that most people could still learn a thing or two about email etiquette. So, we’re putting the unwritten rules of email etiquette in writing. Use this list to send (and hopefully inspire) better emails.

Don’t respond to an email when emotional

Let me paint a picture for you: you’ve had a rough day at work, and at 4:43 p.m., Mike sends you a more-than-slightly passive-aggressive email with “a few suggestions” for your latest project. You might be tempted to speed home, open a bottle of pinot and send a reply with something to the effect of, “If you’re going to micromanage the whole project, why don’t you just do it yourself?” 

But you shouldn’t send that email to Mike. Why? Once you’ve put angry words in writing, they can never be taken back. Before you respond with something nasty, take a breather and come back to it with fresh eyes.

Reinforce your message

One of the most frequently repeated pieces of advice for presenters is, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them.” The same advice could be given for writing effective emails. 

Start your email with a descriptive subject line that lets the recipient know exactly why you’re messaging them. A subject line that reads, “Checking In” is not nearly as effective as, “Checking In About XYZ Company Proposal.” Then lead with the key question or main point of your email instead of burying it between paragraphs (which you shouldn’t be writing anyway). But if the email is a bit longer, it can be helpful to include recap takeaways or items needed at the end. 

Set a response timeframe 

You can be a little frustrated when you haven’t gotten a response to an email you sent four days ago but was never mentioned when you needed to hear back from the recipient. If your email is urgent, tell them. If you need an answer by Friday at 5, tell them. If you’re sending an FYI but don’t really need a response, you guessed it: tell them. 

Beware of CC and BCC

When you CC someone on an email – which means you’re “carbon copying” them – it typically indicates that you want to keep them looped in on the conversation but aren’t necessarily looking for a response from them. The BCC field, or “blind carbon copying” is even more misunderstood. While it’s similar to CC-ing, BCC-ing doesn’t display that person’s email to other recipients, meaning no one else on the chain will see that you included them. BCC-ing someone on an email without the other recipients’ knowledge can be a pretty sneaky maneuver, but is it ever ok to do? Yes, but only when you’re sending a mass email or making a virtual introduction. 

Use exclamation marks and emojis sparingly 

No matter how excited you are to have landed a deal or be working with your new client, exclamation marks can easily be mistaken for phoniness or passive-aggressiveness. The same can be said for emojis and smiley faces, which should only be sent between you and your work bestie on Slack (if even then). The bottom line: when it comes to punctuation, less is always more. 

Don’t pile on 

No one needs a 20th “This looks great to me too!” email. And never hijack an email thread to start a completely different conversation. If you send your unrelated question or comment in a separate email, it will still be seen by your coworkers (and cause a lot less confusion).


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