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Email Etiquette

Lots of people use emails nowadays. It seems strange to look back and think how recently none of us had heard of emails. However, emails can be intensely annoying if used badly. So here is a guide to email etiquette.
Read email
Style
Writing to a friend
Writing to a stranger
Writing to an acquaintance
Don't TXT
Grammar
Emotion
Attitudes
Email address
Subject
Attachments
Copy
Replies
When to reply
Forwarding
Spam, scams and viruses

If you think that I have left anything out, or that my ideas are wrong, please contact me (see bottom of this page).

Read the email before sending

Before hitting the Send button, always read the email that you've just written. Check it for silly mistakes, spelling, comprehensibility, and any of the points mentioned below. Even more important, should you send it at all? Are you too angry, too flippant, too rude? Do you really want the recipient to read this? Reading the email through after writing it will calm you down enough to have second thoughts, if necessary. If you are really angry about something, don't reply for 24 hours.

Get the style right

There is no universal correct style for an email. You can write an email with just one word (Yes - No - Done - OK - Fine) which would be excellent sometimes and very rude at others. You can write an email looking exactly like a formal letter, complete with 'Yours sincerely'. You can have a long gossipy email which might have been written by a Jane Austen heroine. So how do you choose? Think of who is receiving it. You write a different way to a stranger than to a friend.

Writing to a friend

I hope that you don't have to be told how to do this! Friends tend to work out their joint email styles very quickly, and if you're annoying, then they'll probably tell you about it.

Writing to a stranger

You may need to introduce yourself and explain why you are writing. Make sure that you give your name (and surname as well); don't rely on them having to look at your email address to figure it out. If you are asking for something, even if it is only information, be polite, and remember to say 'Please'. If you are complaining, then the person who reads the email won't probably be the person who caused the complaint, so make the complaint impersonal; don't get annoyed or be rude. Most important, be clear, be brief, be polite. Reread the email afterwards imagining that you have just got this email from a stranger, and see how it reads.

Writing to an acquaintance

This is probably the hardest group of people to write to. The rest of the page shows some of the pitfalls.

Don't TXT

Text messages often don't use upper case or punctuation and may use abbreviations. This is because entering a text message is tedious and they must be short anyway. If you are sending emails from a computer, you use a full keyboard and there is no limit of length. Abbreviations are unnecessary and irritate people who aren't used to them.

it can very be very annoying if i write everything in lower case it means that u dont know where stuff begins or ends u have to figure it out and if i make mstkes in speling as well it all gots very diffcolt
IT IS ALSO ANNOYING IF EMAIL IS CAPITALS PEOPLE FEEL YOUR SHOUTING AT THEM
Punctuation and proper sentences are there to make writing easier to read.

Some people send emails from a phone and then they may be forgiven for a certain amount of TXT. But generally, if you are writing to someone who doesn't use TXT, then try not to use it yourself. Unless you want to annoy them, of course!

Grammar and spelling

Try to write as well as you can, but don't worry about it. Usually children and poorly educated adults write reasonably good English. It's the people trying to impress who get into a mess. Write clearly and simply. If you get tangled up in a sentence, then try writing it as two or more sentences, or write it the other way round. If in doubt, say something to yourself, and then write it down. We can all talk, and people understand us when we do. What you are saying matters more than how you say it.

Don't criticise other people's grammar, especially if they are doing their best.

Most email handlers have a spell-checker.

Emotion

There are a number of ways to show emotion in an email: abbreviations like LOL (laugh out loud, or loads of love); emoticons :-) or smilies; and my failing, exclamation marks. I think this is a national divide. Americans seem to like them more, and the British can be sniffy about them. Put it this way, don't use them a lot more than everyone else. Emotion comes through surprisingly well in your normal language. Still, if your correspondents litter the page with joyous symbols, then by all means join in.

Attitudes

We can all get bound up in our own attitude to the world. But you write or talk to someone because you want to communicate to them, that is, make a connection between you in some way. You may think that something is incredibly important. They might not be interested. Practise trying to see things from their point of view. You might be wrong, after all.

This refers to software as well. You may get annoyed that people don't use some aspect of their email handler that you find easy. Not all email handlers are the same.

Check email address

It sounds obvious, but check that you're sending the email to the right person. My husband, a lowly programmer, got sent an email promoting him to Vice President of Marketing. He replied that he was very flattered, but shouldn't the email have been sent to the next person in the email address book?

A more common problem is misspelling the email address. If someone tells you their email address then, when you type it in, you must get every letter and symbol right, or the email will bounce (get rejected and return to you). Even surplus spaces will be enough to get it bounced. The best way to get someone's email address is for them to send you an email, then you can put the address in your electronic address book. Of course someone must be the first to type a new email address in.

It is possible to migrate an email address book from one computer to another when you buy a new computer. However, for important email addresses, it might be a good idea to save them onto a USB stick or even print them out, just in case. This is important information. You mustn't lose it.

If it hasn't got @ in it, then it's not an email address. It might be a web address (which might tell you what the email address is).

Subject

Emails have a subject line or title which describes them. This is useful to the recipient, especially if they get a lot of emails. I've even heard of people sending empty emails because the answer is in the subject. That might be a bit dangerous as some people don't read subject lines. There are notorious subjects such as 'Hello' or 'Interesting' or 'I love you', which have been used by viruses, but still get used by ordinary people. So try to think of something brief which describes the email. If it's important, repeat it in the email itself.

Attachments

People used to be photo bores by hosting a party where they showed slides. Now they send large numbers of enormous photos via email instead. So please don't. Some people still have dial-up, believe it or not, and downloading many megabytes of photos takes time and money. Even with broadband, it takes effort to access the attachments. If you send photos, choose one or two that will appeal to the recipient, and reduce them in size so they take up less than the width of a screen. (I tend to reduce them a lot more.) You can use a program like Paint to do this. If you want people to look at lots of photos, then put them on the web using Flickr, Facebook or MySpace, and send people the web address.

If you are sending a simple message, then put it in the body of the email rather than sending a Word document or other attachment. Don't send attachments unless you know that people have the necessary software to read them. We don't all have Microsoft Powerpoint, you know! Also, don't flood people with data. Send them what they need to know. If you have to send a lot, then summarise it as well.

Always explain in the email what the attachment is. Some viruses get sent via attachments, and from apparently known email addresses. If your recipient gets an email from you with an attachment and no apparent explanation, perhaps not even your name, they may delete the email as being suspect, and I wouldn't blame them.

Copy

Emails can be copied to several people. Some people abuse this useful facility, particularly in offices. Does every person on the copy list need to read this email? If not, you're wasting their time, which is rude. If you reply to this type of Round Robin, then do you need to reply to the whole group? If, for example, someone has sent out an invitation, you only need to reply to the person who sent it. The rest of the group couldn't care less whether you're coming or not. Your email handler will ask whether you need to reply to everyone, so be sure that you answer correctly. Many people feel that they get too many emails, so if anyone asks to be removed from an email list, then please do so.

A normal copy allows each person to see the other addresses that have been copied. There is a blind copy, which is hidden from the others. But make sure you get it right. I prefer to send a separate email if I want one correspondent hidden from the rest, to make sure that I don't mess it up.

If you are sending an email to a group of people, the style doesn't cause a problem. But it can be harder if you are sending an email to one person, while copying another. Who are you actually talking to? I write 'To xxx, copy to yyy' at the start of the main email, so 'yyy' realises that they are listening to a conversation between me and 'xxx'. That way, the email can say 'you' and it's obvious who 'you' is.

Replies

If you reply to an email, then email handlers supply the original email as part of your reply, and usually indicate this in some way. There are several ways of coping with this.

Top posting: This means that you write your reply before the original email. The email handler may encourage you to do this anyway, by positioning the cursor there. The advantage of this is that the recipient sees the reply straight away, and can find the original email if they want. There are disadvantages. If there is a long correspondence, the emails get longer and longer, as all previous emails are there, embedded like archaeological layers, and what's more, they are in reverse order.

Bottom posting: This means that you write your reply after the original email. I would not recommend this unless the original email was very short, so you can see the reply immediately even through it's at the bottom. Searching through pages of original email just to find the reply is a drag. You can also get into a muddle if there is correspondence between various people, copied or forwarded, and some are bottom posting and some are top posting. This means that you can't even work out the order of replies.

Deleting the original: You can delete the original email, or even reply as a new email. In this case, you must make the reply stand-alone. Don't just say "No", because the recipient may have forgotten the original question. Say "No, I can't do ....".

Deleting previous emails: This is a good idea. If there is a long correspondence, then the originals tend to pile up, making an incredibly long email. If someone wants to print it out, then it is a hassle to get the bit they want. Anyway, it's a basic rule of emails, don't send unnecessary data. So even if you want to leave the previous email (to remind the recipient what they said), delete the emails before that (your previous emails, and any older ones that they sent).

Partial deletion: This is useful for replying to a complicated email. Go through the email deleting all the waffle and leaving questions or comments that you need to answer. Then put your answer after each question. That makes sure that you've read and answered the whole email, and makes it easier for the recipient to see this. I like this technique, but I've found people who don't.

When to reply

It is very easy to reply to an email, and so a habit of acknowledgements has been built up. I think this is a good idea. You send an email, and you get back a short email acknowledging that they've got it even if nothing else needs to be said. Good. If you don't, you start to wonder if they got it, or if their email isn't working, or perhaps they haven't read their email. I've also found that if someone writes to ask me for information or to do something, and I reply to them, I often get a short 'Thank you' in reply. This happens far more than when we used letters (as a letter would need a stamp, and posting), and I think that it's an excellent idea.

Normally people like quick replies, but there is one exception perhaps. It is possible to have an email correspondence, exactly as previous generations have had correspondence by letter. But letters dictate their own rhythm as you wait for the post to arrive. Emails get there immediately, so you may need to deliberately slow down the pace of response so you don't both get exhausted.

Forwarding an email

Forwarding emails is another useful facility. If someone asks you for information, you can forward the email to someone who knows the answer. You can reply explaining what you've done, and the whole thing takes a few seconds. You can add a line to the forwarded email if you want, but you need to be a bit careful of this. I sent an email to the local council commenting on a problem, and it got forwarded through several departments, each adding their own comments. When the reply returned to me, all these comments were still there. Luckily they were along the lines of "She's got a point, you know" and no-one had been rude about me, but they might have. It is so easy for emails to travel, through forwarding and copying and replying, so be very careful what you put in any email. You don't know who will end up reading them. People seem to be very reckless in emails, which is stupid. You should be more careful than you would with letters or phone calls, not less.

If you don't feel like forwarding an email, you may be able to suggest an email address, or a web address that might help.

Spam, scams and viruses

These are not the same thing. Spam is electronic junk mail, probably selling you stuff. (The name is reputed to come from the Monty Python Spam sketch.) Scams are intending to steal from you. Viruses are programs which affect your computer, possibly harming it, and spread to other computers.

If you buy something online, or if you register with a website for any reason, there will probably be a tiny box saying "We would like to send you information about our products unless you tick here". Sometimes the sentence is the other way round. If possible, try to tick the box (or not tick it, depending how it's worded) otherwise they have the right to send you emails. Strictly speaking this isn't spam, as you 'invited' them to do so. It still feels like spam. These emails should have some way to ask them to stop sending you more emails. If you recognise the company, then this will work.

Real spam is from companies that you know nothing about. It would be very unwise to reply to real spam. Some spam may contain viruses. What they sell may be illegal, or they may be trying to cheat you. Don't even respond if they offer to stop sending emails (unlike the previous paragraph). They are trying to find 'live' emails, that is, emails where someone will respond to them. So any reply, even to try to stop the emails, may lead to a lot more.

Scams are trying to cheat you. Phishing is one particular scam. This is an email which looks as if it comes from a genuine organisation, often a bank. It claims that there is some problem, and you must go to a website, sign on with your online banking details and correct the problem. But the website is not the real bank's web address. It has been set up by the scammers. If you do enter your bank details, then they can use them to steal your money. No real bank sends out this type of email. If any email asks for confidential information, (and your financial details should be confidential) via email or on the web, it is almost certainly crooked. If you think it might be genuine, do not obey it straight away. Get in touch with the bank, via phone or in person or via the bank's real web address (which you should be able to get via Google) and check it first.

Other scams involve vague suggestions that you may be sent large amounts of money. They started from Nigeria, but now come from all over the world. Someone has left you money in a will, someone has died without making a will and you may help to claim it, you have won some lottery. Look, is any of this likely? No. If it's too good to be true, then bin it.

Viruses are nasty. You must have virus protection, which you must keep up to date. Viruses are developing all the time, so you must download the most recent version of your virus protection. (This may happen automatically - check that it does.) If you have broadband, you should also have a firewall, to protect you from nasties on the web. Be careful about attachments. It is possible for an attachment to contain a virus. If an email has an attachment, do not open it unless it comes from someone you know. It's not enough to just recognise the email address, as virus writers use other people's emails. Does the wording of the email sound as if it comes from the person you know? We are very sensitive to people's style of writing, so this is easier than it sounds. If you are dubious about any attachment, then ask the sender to confirm that they have sent you something.

One way to reduce spam and viruses is to block all emails except from known addresses. This can cause its own problems. I have been sent emails by strangers asking me something, and when I replied, the email got bounced. Their spam filter wouldn't accept me. And that was that. I couldn't even reply to them telling them about this.



My name is Jo Edkins - index to all my websites - any questions or comments, email jo.edkins.computing@gwydir.demon.co.uk

© Jo Edkins 2009