Email Etiquette & Electronic Communication

Written By: Randy Smith

Email Etiquette & Electronic Communication

We all agree that effective communication is important in business, family, and personal relationships yet we often let circumstances and conditions change the intent of our conversations. For the purposes of this article I will be focusing on email communications, but the same rules also apply to texting, posting on social media, etc.

I have some basic rules I try to (not always successfully) follow:

  • Know your audience
  • Always review your communication before sending it
  • Always make sure your message says what you intend it to say
  • Don’t read things into messages that aren’t there
  • Never reply immediately when emotional issues are involved
  • Sensitive emails should be thoroughly thought through before posting
  • Be sure you are not copying individuals you shouldn’t
  • Sometimes no response is the best response

Know Your Audience

Would you send the same message to your boss as you would to a spouse or a close friend? Would you send the same message to one coworker that you would send in a message addressed to all, or a group of company employees? With more intimate messages you can add humor or be more casual in your conversation different then if you were writing to the CEO or to all users.

Review Emails Before Sending

When an email message contains a lot of grammar problems and misspellings, it detracts from the message itself. People tend to focus on the errors instead of the message content. It also projects an image you may not want to leave. The “autocorrect” feature in messaging has really exposed the problems of not properly reviewing messages or being in too much of a hurry. “Dang autocorrect” is a comment I often hear and use myself.

Make Sure The Message Says What Is Intended

This not only applies to the wording, but to the way the words are used. Of all the rules, this is the one that gets us in the most trouble. We may have a totally innocent message, but because of the way we worded the message, used punctuation, capitalized letters, etc. we could leave a totally unintended message.

I once had a situation in a previous position where we needed technical support for a specialized software application used in the company’s Quebec, Canada office. The Quebec province is French-speaking and many people there do not speak any English. To simplify the communications with the vendor (their tech support did not speak English) we had one of our company employees in that office help with the communications to the vendor. The employee did a lot of data entry, so the computer caps lock was nearly always on. The employee sent a totally innocent message explaining the problem, but it was all in caps. When the vendor support technician read the message, she was highly offended even though the words were very innocent. She, therefore, refused to help us. Long story short, I ended up speaking with their vice president and she told us the message caused the technician to cry and that the vendor would no longer provide support to our company. After apologizing for the mistake, they still insisted we no longer be supported by them and they no longer wanted us as a customer. A very innocent, unintended consequence.

Don’t Read Things Into Messages That Aren’t Intended

The previous example highlights how easy it is to be offended by an email even though no offense was meant. If you are initially offended by a message, take a step back and think it through. This will help you see the message from the perspective of the sender.

Email Etiquette

Never Reply Immediately When Emotional Issues Are Involved

The worst thing we can do is to fire off a quick, rebuttal response to an emotional email. This is the easiest way to escalate problems and to break the previous two rules of making sure the message contains what it is really meant to convey. When potentially emotional emails require a response, I will often wait until the next day before replying. This tactic will help diffuse what could be an explosive, or in the very least, uncomfortable situation. You are not obligated to reply if you can’t do it right.

Be Sure You Are Not Copying Individuals You Shouldn’t

If the email message is to be directed to a specific individual, keep it that way. Involving others outside the issue will create problems that should not have been created in the first place. It also sends the message to the intended recipient that you don’t trust them to resolve the issue on their own. This does not apply if the message is sent to one person, but others are already involved or may help with any resolutions.

For example, you should never copy company officers on issues you need to have resolved if this is the first communication. If, after some communication attempts, you have tried to get something taken care of and do not feel your issue has been given the proper attention, you could escalate the problem to a higher authority. Be very careful when you do this because it can often backfire and fall back on you if your request is proven to be unreasonable or is for the purpose of embarrassing someone or a group. These almost always turn out bad for the original sender.

Sometimes The Best Response Is No Response

Before replying to any email, ask yourself if a response would help, or hinder the communication. Sometimes you just need to let the issue die out instead of responding and rekindling the fire.

The above items are not intended to be all-inclusive but can provide a beginning to better electronic communications. We don’t have the luxury of reading body language or applying the tone of voice used with face-to-face interactions. I have attempted to address the key items that can help to improve communications and diffuse potential communication disasters. I wish I always followed these rules but I sometimes find myself wishing I could take back an email or exclaim the dreaded “dang autocorrect.”

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