Ever hit “reply all” on an email you shouldn’t have? Or vice versa? How do you write a formal email without sounding like you have no personality, or altogether too much personality? And what the heck are you supposed to put in the subject line? Well, I’m not Emily Post—but in this guide to email etiquette, you can call me E-Post. (Get it?) We’re going to take a deep dive on the multitudinous aspects of “shooting off a quick email,” which is rarely as simple as it sounds.
Re: Subject Lines
That is a super-weird subject line, and will essentially guarantee that no one will open a cold email from you. Even if they do know you, it’s still weird. Do you greet people that way in real life? I sure hope not.
The subject line of an email should be clear and concise. If you’re applying for a job, for example, “Associate Law Editor Position” is a perfectly acceptable subject line. If you’re forwarding preliminary research for a project, put “Site Design Research—Photos and Notes” so your recipient knows what they’re getting. Capitalize the subject line as you would a title—first, last, and important words. People receive lots of emails every day, and being able to scroll through their inbox and know approximately what each email contains is much more convenient than an oddly placed salutation or icebreaker.
Salutations, Good Sir and/or Madam
That sub-header right there is quite possibly the worst way to start an email. I sincerely hope that, when you’re reaching out to someone via email, you know the recipient’s name. If you’ve met them in person, address them how you normally do. I once met someone at a networking function and, when he emailed to follow up, he referred to me as “Dear Ms. Kaitlin McManus”—which was weird, since he had been calling me just “Kaitlin” at the event.
If you haven’t met your contact, things can get trickier. I stick with either “Mr./Ms. Last Name” (Mrs. only if I know for certain that she’s married) or simply “First Name Last Name.” Then, when they respond, I check what they signed off as. If I call someone “Mr. Smith,” but he signs off as simply, “John,” I’ll call him John in my next email. Erring on the side of formality when you don’t know what to call someone is okay; simply adjust if you need to as your correspondence continues.
Also, personally, I don’t put “dear” at the start of any email because this isn’t the 18th century. While admittedly most people don’t even register the address, to me, that invisibility makes it superfluous.
Punctuation—the Building Blocks of Sounding Intelligent
Punctuation affects the way in which we read a sentence—sentences with the same words but different punctuation can have vastly different meanings. (A classic example being the crucial distinction between “Let’s eat, Grandma,” and “Let’s eat Grandma.”) So it’s important to use punctuation correctly to strike your desired tone.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” He’s not wrong. If I don’t know someone well, I tend to use a lot of exclamation points. In the moment, I think they make me sound friendlier. In retrospect, they make me sound slightly manic. Not the professional image I’m trying to cultivate. You should use exclamation points as often as you would laugh at your own jokes: Hardly ever. If you’re really trying to lay it on thick with the friendliness, I’d give you a max of two per email—and not on the same sentence!! (See? It’s too much.)
Another thing to avoid are ellipses. (Otherwise known as a dot-dot-dot…) Ellipses give the impression that you don’t know how to finish your own thought—but this is an email. You have all the time in the world to finish your thought. This is professional correspondence, not a passive-aggressive Post-it left for your roommate: Stick to one period at a time.
This Is Me, Signing Off
The way you end an email is as important as the way you start it. You want to leave your reader with a good impression: appreciative of their time and effort, but not overbearing or, on the flip-side, curt. When it comes to professional emails, I try to keep my sign-off semi-personal. “Sincerely” has the same effect on me as “dear” at the start—it’s a little old-fashioned, and a little invisible. It’ll do the job, but the job can be done better.
I tend to go with “All the best,” or “Best”—perhaps “Thanks again,” if I’m asking for a favor (although usually I put that at the end of the email text itself). I’ve received and appreciated comments like, “Warmly,” “Many thanks,” and “Cheers,” if I’ve met the person before. Basically, your goal is to sound warm, kind, and professional rather than stiff.
To Reply or To Reply All
Oh, the drama that has been caused by using the reply-all function incorrectly. Not using it when you should causes almost as much trouble as using it when you shouldn’t—almost. If you find yourself on a group email chain, here’s my advice: decide whether you’re replying to just the sender or to everyone first. Before you even type the email. Configure your recipients before typing anything at all, because once you’ve made your point, it’s too easy to hit a button that says “reply” without looking for the “all.”
One rather innocuous example of incorrect usage is the email introduction: If someone has introduced you to another person via email, reply all—it’s the only way to get the new person on the email chain. But if the other person reaches out first and they’re the latest sender, then simply reply—dropping the introducer off the chain as you and your new pal correspond. The introducer doesn’t need to see your entire email chain. Put yourself in the shoes of the other receivers. Would you want to receive your email? If not, just reply.
CC vs. BCC vs. BC vs. BBC...
CCing and/or BCCing someone on an email is the B-side to reply vs. reply all. When you’ve CCed someone on an email (short for “carbon copy”), the email goes to that person—and everyone else on the email chain knows it. This is a function you’d use if, say, you wanted to send an email to a client as well as her assistant, so they both have it. BCC (“blind carbon copy”) is when you add someone to an email, but the recipient doesn’t see them on the email chain. For example, if you emailed a tough client and BCCed your boss to loop her in, then your boss would receive the email but the recipient would simply see themselves and you on the email chain. Feeling paranoid yet? BCCing has its uses, but mostly you should be using CC in a work setting.
For something that’s been around for essentially as long as I’ve been alive, email can be a sticky trap to fall into. Really, the rules of email etiquette are the same as most rules of etiquette: write the email you’d like to receive: Correctly addressed and spelled, warm but professional, and ideally brief. So long as you keep these rules in mind, you should be able to avoid most of the pitfalls email can present.
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