Modern Etiquette: Email Correspondence

Illustration by Anna Emilia

I was so excited to tackle today’s etiquette post because, if you’re a blogger or someone who works online, you understand just how big a portion of our jobs email has become. From researching and interviewing to submissions and content management, email is the home base around which most of my business operates and returns to over and over again. Whether you’re a blogger, a business owner or someone who spends a lot of time on email, I can’t think of another area (aside from social media) that is so fraught with chances for huge snafus.

So today I’m going to tackle the basics and get into some nitty-gritty details. I’ve gone through all sorts of email phases in my life and, like most bloggers, I answer a few hundred emails a day. I’ve seen firsthand how well-written and friendly emails can make and break a reputation and both open and close doors for people. My goal is for everyone to have some tools and tricks in their pocket to help them feel confident to write the appropriate email for just about any situation. As always, I want this to be an open forum to discuss points you think are important, too. So if I’ve missed something or you disagree or you want to share a story that would be helpful to the rest of us reading, I wholeheartedly welcome your feedback. Email, like most online interactions, is constantly changing, and I think the more input we have from seasoned email pros, the better. Thanks for reading! xo, grace

The full post continues after the jump . . .

*Please note: Today’s post is primarily intended for professional emails. Obviously, if you’re writing to a dear friend, you don’t need to keep in mind a lot of the notes about formality and phrasing, etc.

Today I want to start by sharing a little system I created for myself after, of course, making mistakes that helped me better understand how to write — and how not to write — emails. It doesn’t have a clever acronym, but it’s a simple five-step process I try to follow every time.

1. Lead with an appropriate greeting: This is where formality and professionalism are important. Don’t abbreviate someone’s name if you don’t know them, and don’t use just their first name if they’re not a friend or a closer acquaintance. But definitely use a name. Mass emails and blank-name emails are a waste of everyone’s time and just get deleted by most people I know these days.

2. Introduce yourself: I never assume anyone knows who the heck I am, so I always introduce myself and my business in two short sentences. It helps to show someone who you are and why you and your email will be relevant to them.

3. Provide a short and sweet explanation: This is where most mistakes are made, I think. Keep your message short and to the point. Show that you’re respectful of their time, and, if requested, try to leave long personal/business information or stories for later.

4. Double check: Before you hit send, always spell-check, grammar-check and visually check that you’ve gotten the person’s name, title, company name and email correct. This can prevent the dreaded “Oops, I cut and paste this to everyone and now you can tell” mistake.

5. Polite closing: Always end with a “thank you” and your name. It never hurts to start and end on a polite note.

These are just the basics, but this little checklist is a great way to get started. Primarily because the things people want out of most emails are the things they’d want from any interaction — to feel respected, appreciated and understood. And by following a bit of email etiquette, it’s easy to give those things to the people you’re emailing and hopefully receive them in return.

I. Email addresses

Here’s a good chance to avoid one of email’s many pitfalls: the “mass CC.” When you’re sending an email to someone, think carefully about three things:

1. Do they have a contact email on their site? If so, use that. Don’t include a personal address if you know that’s not where they answer work email. You don’t want to email bomb them with the same email at multiple accounts.

2. If you’re including other people on the email, make sure all of those people NEED to be there, and that they KNOW they’re on there. If you’re open copying people who don’t typically share their email addresses, you’re going to step into hot water. Also, if you copy a dozen people who don’t really need to receive that email, that’s going to generate a lot of back and forth explaining who everyone is and why they’re there. Bottom line: If you need to copy several people, introduce them in the email and explain why they’re copied.

3. Write personal emails. If you want to email ten people the same thing and those people don’t know each other, write ten different emails. It’s rude to blanket copy people who have no connection and just assume they all want to be on a mass email.

II. Subject lines

Subject lines should be simple explanations of what’s inside, not a teaser line. I really hate it when emails say something like, “You’re going to want to open this!” or “URGENT OFFER,” and then you open them and find out neither is true. Use subject lines as short (no long sentences) eye-catchers. Like “New Furniture line from Brooklyn” or “Speaking invitation at NY College” or “Information you requested re: Brooklyn Letterpress.”

III. Openers

The beginning of any email is the first place you could lose someone quickly. The best thing to remember is that this is also your first chance to show you appreciate someone by taking the time to use their full name (spelled correctly — no abbreviations or nicknames) and the correct formality. Nothing sets off my red flags quicker than an email with no name, a majorly misspelled name or an abbreviation. Example: My parents don’t call me Gracie, so if you’re writing me for the first time, you probably shouldn’t either.

I sometimes go back and forth on those two or three tiny words that open an email. Here are my guidelines based on recipient:

  • Someone you don’t know at all: Hello, Mrs. Smith or Ms. Smith (I always feel weird saying Dear, So and So.)
  • Someone I sort of know: Hi, Karen
  • Someone I know well: Hey, Karen or Hi, Karen (I often use an exclamation point with people I know, e.g., Hi, Karen! to indicate a friendly, upbeat hello.)

 

When in doubt, the main thing to remember with an opener is to use someone’s proper name, spelled correctly.

IV. Introductions

I’m a firm believer in taking a sentence or two to introduce yourself. Sometimes people skip that part, and it makes a big difference in how you prioritize that email if you don’t remember how you met, why you should know them, etc. Something simple like this should suffice:

Hi, Karen. My name is Grace, and I run a design blog called Design*Sponge. We met last month at the trade show through our mutual friend, Amy. I hope this email finds you well . . .

Taking a moment to introduce yourself — briefly — is thoughtful and really helps form that click or connection that can be valuable when trying to grab someone and stand out in a day’s worth of emails. If you haven’t met someone, it’s completely fine to just introduce what you do, where you do it and why it’s relevant to them. For example:

Hello, Mrs. Smith. My name is Grace Bonney, and I run a Brooklyn-based design blog called Design*Sponge. I’ve been covering southern textile designers for the past eight years and love the work you’ve done with the Textile Alliance.

These brief two- to three-sentence introductions show that you know who the person is, that you took the time to consider whether you and your business are a good fit for them and that you can keep your information brief and to the point.

V. The Meat of the Email

The body of any email is where most of the work happens. This is where you’re sharing your business or product with someone, asking for advice or a favor or simply relaying information that’s relevant.

No matter how busy someone is, it’s best to assume that they don’t live to read email 24/7, and that keeping things short and sweet would be helpful. I try to keep things to two brief paragraphs. Something along these lines:

Hello, Mrs. Smith. My name is Grace Bonney, and I run a Brooklyn-based design blog called Design*Sponge. I’ve been covering southern textile designers for the past eight years and love the work you’ve done with the Textile Alliance.

I’m writing because Design*Sponge is doing a special week on textiles, and we would love to interview you, or someone from Textile Alliance, as part of the series. I know your time is probably limited, so I would be more than happy to send you questions via email if time permits.

Our readership is a passionate audience that has a history of responding strongly to artist profiles and following up with purchases from their collections. My hope is that an interview with you or some of your team members will not only highlight the great work you’re doing, but also bring well-deserved attention to your web shop, as well.

In order to get a response, you rarely need to include more information than the basic details. I like to give as much information as I can without overwhelming someone, but without being vague, too. It drives me NUTS when someone just says, “I have an idea/opportunity to discuss. Let’s set up a time to call.” Never assume that someone has the time/interest in taking a phone call if you don’t have the courtesy to explain what you want to discuss first.

VI. Double Check

Oohh-wee is this an important step. Spell-check and grammar check are wonderfully built in to most email platforms these days, so that saves you a lot of work, but it’s always good to recheck the following:

  • Name spelling
  • Business names (avoid cut and paste errors!)
  • Email addresses
  • Dates/times
  • Your personal contact information (should they need to reach you outside of email)

 

Double checks have saved my behind more times than I can count. When you’re busy and replying to a lot of emails, it’s easy to get the last email subject’s name stuck in your head and mistakenly use it in a new email. If this happens to you like it does to me, do yourself a favor and turn on Google Lab’s “UNSEND” setting for Gmail. It’s my best friend.

VII. Polite Closings

Closings can be deceivingly tricky. A simple, “Thank you for your time, Grace,” is usually the best way to close, but I’ve seen some crazy closings over the past decade of blog emailing. Some people fill their closing with a guilt-induced plea or signatures that go on for lines and lines and lines, and some people decide it’s the place to get cheeky and say things like, “Don’t make me wait too long for a response, yeah?” Just stick to the simple, “Thank you,” with your name. You can never, ever go wrong with that.

VIII. Extra Tips to Keep in Mind Before You Hit Send

  • Be careful with punctuation: Use exclamation points sparingly and for emphasis only when needed. Too many, and it starts to sound like you’re shouting.
  • Mind your file sizes: Ask before attaching large or high-res files. You may clog someone’s inbox quota, so ask first or attach low-res preview images to start.
  • Don’t email when emotional or angry: Too upset to think clearly? Don’t email. Step away from the computer and come back when you can let cooler heads prevail.
  • Don’t be cutesy in professional emails: Lose the emoticons, colored fonts and backgrounds and slang/abbreviations when sending a professional email.
  • Don’t add someone to a newsletter or email without permission: Enough said.
  • Don’t write what you wouldn’t want read back to you in court: Email isn’t confidential and is spread more than you’d think. So be sure anything you write in an email to someone is something you’d be ok having your name attached to.
  • Pick up the phone when things get messy: If you’re sending out email after email arguing or trying to clarify something to someone, just pick up the phone. Email-as-conversation (one of my worst habits) really annoys most people.
  • Avoid signatures that reveal more than is appropriate: I’ve seen some pretty out-there email signatures, and it always surprises me that people are sending business email from something with the phrase “[Name] likes to party like a rock star!”
  • If you’re receiving a mass email, don’t hit “reply all” unless it actually applies to everyone (e.g., change of date/address).

 

IX. Email Tips for Bloggers

A few extra thoughts may come in handy if you’re a blogger dealing with email issues. I’m constantly struggling to keep up with mine and finally accepted that I can only give people my full attention and focus if I sit down twice a week and devote however many hours are necessary to finishing JUST my email. So it means a slower response, but a better one. I try to focus on these as my blogger musts (when it’s possible):

1. Respond in a timely manner: This one is relative to your work load, but I feel like most readers would like a response within 1–2 days. That just isn’t possible for some people, so I think within 5–7 days is fair, especially if you plan to send a personal response and not a bounce-back. That said, a bounce-back that is personalized is a great way to deal with acknowledging someone’s email so they aren’t wondering if it arrived.

I don’t use a bounce-back myself, but I do use Google’s Canned Responses (in the Google Labs section of Gmail) to pre-write responses based on standard email types (submissions, requests for information, etc.). I customize these with the person’s real name and a line about what they’re asking. That way they know I’m working on it and will get back as soon as I can.

2. Don’t fight over email: It just never pays to do this. I convinced myself it was better to take angry comments to email sometimes, but most of the time, it’s best to let it go. If someone writes you a nasty email, the best response is to acknowledge it and move on. You can say “Thank you for sharing your opinion. I’ll take that into account,” and then move on. If they’re a real jerk, just hit delete. Getting into a fight online (and in writing, which someone can post or share online) is never good for business.

3. Be personal: I love having a real name associated with emails rather than something generic like “The Design*Sponge Team.” If I answer an email, I sign it with my name. If Amy answers, it’s from her. Letting people get to know your team is a valuable part of connecting with your readers, so don’t be afraid to be personal and skip the faceless brand technique.

4. Prepare an FAQ or post for common requests/emails: It can be frustrating to answer the same question or request over and over after a few years, so if you find yourself getting to that point, it’s a good sign that you’ve got an in-demand post topic on your hands. Turn that answer into a post somewhere, and then you can easily save that link and basic response as a “Canned Response” in Google and use it as a reply (personalized, ideally) whenever someone asks. Example:

I’d love to know how you got your start and how you built an ad program. Can you give me your advice?

Response: Amy, thanks so much for your email, and congratulations on your new blog. I’d be more than happy to share my thoughts and advice on that topic. I actually wrote a full post on the topic here [insert link] — I hope it will help you get started. Best of luck, Grace

* * *

All these ideas and tips are based on my experience over the past decade of working in a primarily email-based business. I’ve seen people try some crazy things, and I’ve seen people write such wonderful emails that it’s made me stop and really pay attention to their business. Hopefully, these ideas will get the conversation started about what people think is right for them and their business and what they’d like to send/receive themselves. Everyone has different ideas of what makes an ideal email, so I’d love to hear what rules and guidelines you follow and what you’d hope to receive in your inbox. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your feedback. xo, grace

  1. LA Lady says:

    While this isn’t necessarily an etiquette tip, I’ve added email privacy disclaimers to my business emails. There’s a lot of sketchy rules when it comes to public vs private information. If I’m discussing anything remotely private, I add a quick “intended for recipient only…” disclaimer at the bottom after my (short) signature.

  2. Amy says:

    I love this information!

  3. margarita says:

    Great post as usual and very helpful. I know I keep making mistakes and that my grammar is not correct but I try my best and I keep improving. This post will be very useful as a reminder of how to do things well, although each of us has a different style and way of saying things, there are general rules that should be follow, yes I agree on that.

  4. victoria says:

    grace, do you answer every single email? I am trying but sometimes I just feel so overwhelmed by it all. would love your take on that bit of the email equation. I really want to be gracious but sometimes the requests are so far from my area of expertise I just don’t even know where to begin.

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      hi victoria,

      amy and i manage the d*s submissions email, and between the two of us we answer every personalized email we get. that means we don’t reply to mass emails, etc. i think if someone takes the time to send an email that was clearly thoughtful and addresses an individual or at least our correct business name, it’s worth the time and effort to respond. that said, sometimes it takes me a week (or more if i’ve had a crazy work stretch) to get to every email. i don’t reply with regrets to emails though- i have a standard response that explains that and how we’ll respond within a week after the initial email if we DO have a post planned on something.

      re: questions outside my range of expertise, i answer them in terms of responding, but if i don’t know or can’t help i politely explain just that- that i’m not the best person to answer. if i can suggest someone else i will, but sometimes it’s just not something i can help with so i think it’s ok to say that and move on. :)

      grace :)

  5. Sarita Rajiv says:

    This is a wonderful post Grace and very timely for me. Sometimes, I struggle with writing emails to complete strangers. Your tips are useful though I would probably avoid using a Mrs. or Mr. salutation unless the person insists on being called so.

    Having received a reply from you and Amy, I know from experience that at Design Sponge practice what you preach:-)

  6. Louisa says:

    I hate it when people spell my name wrong! If they’ve managed to get my name right in the email address, then it’s not too hard to write it correctly again! That said, I’ve had people call up in places I’ve worked before telling me my email wasn’t working when they’ve just spelt it wrong – we used to joke that anything sent to my name spelt wrong, should get an auto-reply telling them to spell it correctly!

    One thing I would add is to be very mindfull of the language abilities of the person you are emailing. I do a lot of work with China, and you have to be very careful how emails are worded. It’s worth bearing in mind if you are emailing someone who is not a native English speaker, that colloquialisms may not be understood, and punctuation can make a lot of difference! I email people in China quite a lot and hate it when I see my colleagues using phrases that I know they won’t understand. It doesn’t take much to bear in mind that if the person you are emailing is from a completely different culture then you need to pay attention to how you phrase your email!

  7. jessvii says:

    I wanted to weigh in on the Ms. / Mrs. debate as someone who has changed her last name.

    First, I agree with the posters who have said that you should refer to the woman by whatever she refers to herself as. If she signs her emails “Mrs. Smith”, use Mrs. And if you don’t know, going with Ms. is the safer choice. This is also true if you speak with an older woman on the phone – do not assume that you can use Mrs. based on her age.

    However, I also wanted to say that I take pride in being a Mrs., and I fear that the Mrs. title will disappear entirely from use over time. I like being referred to as Mrs. If it’s really a matter of a woman’s choice, then my choice to use it matters just as much as the choice of other women to shun the title. It was a difficult ordeal to change my last name – I had to change my credit cards, driver’s license, work records, and other accounts. Sometimes, it was easier to close an account entirely because the process was so cumbersome.

    To summarize, live and let live. Address women by Ms. if you don’t know their status, but use Mrs. if the woman requests it or addresses herself as such.

  8. I have corresponded with many people I don’t know –on paper and in email– when submitting my portfolio for review by curators. I noticed a few years ago a trend of using “Dear Miranda Maher,” when we didn’t know each other. I’ve always thought it felt awkward, but I do appreciate it’s formal neutrality — no Ms. or Mrs or Mr. chosen. It’s also a solution when corresponding with people from different countries, when their gender is not apparent (to us) from their first name.

    I think I’m older than the average D*S reader, so Mrs. Post doesn’t bother me, though I’ve always preferred Miss Manners. (Miss? That one has thankfully disappeared). I also was around in the 1970s when “Mrs. vs. Ms.” was loaded with politics, and signified a lot more than choice of last name. Maybe because of that (and because I interact with many people my own age who share that experience), I never refer to someone as “Mrs.” unless they let me know they prefer it.

    I’m not really offering any of this as “the way” to do anything. It’s just interesting to hear the different perspectives and thought I would chime in with mine.

    And — thank you Grace. Yet another fabulous post from my favorite blog.

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      thanks for your input, miranda :)

      g

  9. Karen judge says:

    Good reminders all, it’s sooo easy to be overly informal with email. Now I’m wondering who I’ve offended lately…

  10. thanks grace. this helps put it in perspective for me. i usually respond within a week too, but it’s helpful to know about the ‘regrets’ – i need a better system. i’m working towards the ‘zero inbox’ system as best i can! :)

  11. Grace Bonney says:

    Koliti

    If it’s someone above you, in terms of a boss or manager, I’d avoid bringing that up. That said, if it really is a problem, I’d suggest saying something like, “Hi Karen- I noticed in your emails you’re using abbreviations that I’m afraid I’m not familiar with. Would you be able to use the full words so I make sure I get all the details of your instructions correct?”. But if it’s something simple that you can’t really explain that with, I’d probably just let it go. You can choose to respond with YOUR emails in a professional tone and hopefully she will follow suit.

    Grace

  12. Mrs. Brinson says:

    I. Love. This. Post.

    Email is often overlooked for tone of voice and assumptions that the reader knows certain details. It is so critical to compose a clear message. We have a little rule for emotional emails (the ones where you anger type). Get a buddy and have them tone check you.

    Grace, thank you so much for writing this post.

  13. Jade says:

    Love this article, I think we all need a bit of a refresher course in etiquette every now and then. I used to work with a girl that emailed “Dearest so and so” – for every email, it sent me batty and I mentioned it to her that she needn’t be so polite that just “Hi so and so” would be more than enough… she continued with the dearest and ended it with “Yours” which I personally think is WAY to intimate for work.

  14. ruby says:

    “Mind your file sizes: Ask before attaching large or high-res files. You may clog someone’s inbox quota, so ask first or attack low-res preview images to start.”
    You mean attach? :)

  15. I love these Modern Etiquette posts.Now I also know why you emailed me ” Thanks so much for taking the time to email your project/ makeover/before-after. Unfortunately, due to the volume of emails we receive, we can’t respond with regrets “, :-)).Only joking .
    Mind you it all makes sense to me what you are saying here, and the bottom line is that it is important in a changing world to have some manners and guide lines.Lovely post and lovely comments!!

  16. I can’t agree enough with proofreading, proofreading, proofreading. I always read through my emails several times to make sure I’m making the point I intended. And I learned from a previous boss to use exclamation points sparingly– something I think most people in our generation don’t quite understand.

  17. Suzanne says:

    As someone who writes and receives a lot of email, I still found your article very helpful. A refresher never hurts. I was surprised to read that one should allow up to a week for a reply. That seems rude, and I’d like to go on the record as being against that. In business, I try to treat an email like a phone call. I’d never wait a week to call someone back!

  18. This is a comprehensive list of tips to improve communicating via email. I think that the most important ideas to remember are to keep emails clear and to the point. Experts agree that your e-mail behavior has the potential to sabotage your reputation both personally and professionally.

  19. Victoria says:

    Hi, I´m from Mexico and have been recently doing business with company in San Francisco, your post was very useful to me because email etiquette in my country is very different from yours.
    Thank you for this.

  20. Bradford says:

    Grace, this is a helpful guide for people. One thing, I think it is silly to write “my name is…” in an email. That’s really a phone call greeting. In an email, your name has preceded the body of the email and is visible everywhere. Cheers.

LEAVE A COMMENT

Design*Sponge reserves the right to restrict comments that do not contribute constructively to the conversation at hand, contain profanity, personal attacks, hate speech or seek to promote a personal or unrelated business. Our goal is to create a safe space where everyone (commenters, subjects of posts and moderators) feels comfortable to speak. Please treat others the way you would like to be treated and be willing to take responsibility for the impact your words may have on others. Disagreement, differences of opinion and heated discussion are welcome, but comments that do not seek to have a mature and constructive dialogue will not be published. We moderate all comments with great care and do not delete any lightly. Please note that our team (writers, moderators and guests) deserve the same right to speak and respond as you do, and your comments may be responded to or disagreed with. These guidelines help us maintain a safe space and work toward our goal of connecting with and learning from each other.