Expression in Email

It’s a disarmingly easy to use form – like writing a letter only faster and less formal – but it’s just as easy to go wrong doing it. Here are a few guidelines to smooth over the potentially rough edges of email communication:

  • Make the subject line relevant – Don’t leave your respondent wondering what might be in an email with a subject line like “Hi”. Especially in business, make sure that the subject line is concise and gives an indication of what the topic of the email that follows will be.
  • Don’t use “Re:” in a subject line unless it is a reply – Never start a new email conversation with a subject that begins with “Re:”. Certainly, at times it may seem appropriate, but the usage of that prefix to indicate replies is so wide that we don’t even notice it anymore. If you feel that you absolutely must use it in a subject line, consider using a synonym instead, such as “Concerning”, “About” or even “Regarding”.
  • Only use a time-dependent greeting when you’re sure what time the email will be read – If you’re in Australia, emailing someone in America at 9AM your time, Good Morning may seem appropriate as a greeting – but consider that it will most likely be night time there when the email arrives a few minutes later. Instead, use a greeting or salutation that does not mention the time of day. For informal emails, “Hello” or “Hi” are both fine (Australians can add “G’day” to that list, too). For more formal emails, the old letter-writing classic of “Dear …” is your best bet.
  • Keep it brief unless invited not to – Email is an immediate medium. You should try to keep messages in it relatively short. If you feel you need more room to explain something, either ask for it and explain in the next exchange, or attach it as a separate document.
  • Keep the formatting simple – as tempting as it may be to include lots of bells and whistles, it’s still simplest and best to rely on the words alone. Plain text is readable in almost every context, while fancy formatting may not translate well between different email apps.
  • In a formal email, do not use emoticons – as tempting as it might be, emoticons have little place in business email. It’s one thing to send a smiley face to your mate, and quite another to send it to your boss.
  • Be aware that email is not that private – Unless you’re deleting every email you send or receive, your emails will be around for a long time. And even if you are deleting them, you can never be sure that your correspondents are, or that your ISP or work IT dept is. A good rule of thumb, albeit a severe one, is never to say anything in email you wouldn’t be comfortable having read into evidence in a court case. It may never come to that, but then again, it may – it’s best to be circumspect. If it’s too sensitive for email, tell it over the phone or in person.
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