E-mail Etiquette Redux: Everything You Should Never Do

Lora Bentley
Slide Show

Top Five Rules for E-mail Etiquette

Follow these simple rules to look more professional in the world of e-business communication.

No matter how many times I've written on a particular subject, sometimes the opportunity presents itself for another review. Today, I'm on the e-mail etiquette soapbox.


Just before we at IT Business Edge left for Christmas last week, we received an e-mail introducing us to a new Web-based collaboration tool (administered by another company) that we would be using to elect our insurance benefits, submit claims for our flexible spending accounts, and request and keep track of paid time off, among other things. The e-mail, which came from the hosting company, also included instructions regarding logging in and selecting our insurance coverage during the open enrollment period. The instructions were a bit unwieldy and there were typos throughout, but I muddled through and thought I had done what I needed to do.


But apparently some of us didn't interpret the instructions correctly. When the representative responsible for our company's account learned that there was some confusion about the log in and enrollment process, instead of a sending a second e-mail acknowledging the confusion and trying to clear up what had been misunderstood, the account rep merely copied and pasted the same instructions, written in all capital letters (some also in bold type) into another e-mail and then highlighted various steps and segments with one of at least four different colors.


That e-mail popped into my inbox yesterday afternoon. Not only did reading it hurt my eyes, but I felt like I had been screamed at and my intelligence had been insulted all in the space of two minutes. To make matters worse, I had no idea what I had done to warrant such an e-mail. There had been no introductory paragraph to explain that some people had misunderstood the instructions or any kind of lead in to clue me in to what it was. When I discovered that several of us had received the same e-mail, I knew it was time for an etiquette review.


Here are my top 5 reminders:


  • Never use all caps. In an e-mail (or a Facebook post or an instant message, even) it is equivalent to screaming at the reader.
  • If bold type or italics are necessary for emphasis, use them sparingly. Otherwise they lose their meaning.
  • Avoid highlighting or using odd font colors for emphasis. At best they will annoy the readers because they're hard on the eyes. At worst, your message will be lost because the readers will have skipped the highlighted segments completely.
  • Adding color and writing in all caps will not make a message less confusing. When you get feedback that readers are confused, rethink your approach. If the e-mail addresses several different topics, try sending several shorter e-mails, one per topic. If the e-mail doesn't necessarily apply to everyone on a mailing list, don't send it to the entire mailing list. Send it only to those who need to see it.
  • If the second attempt at resolving the issue via e-mail doesn't do it, pick up the phone. Or convey the message to managers and have them go through the process with their teams in person. Some things are easier to say than they are to write.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Dec 30, 2010 7:49 PM Ann All Ann All  says:

Oh, I don't know. The fuchsia font was kind of pretty.

Jan 6, 2011 10:19 AM Stephen Hill Stephen Hill  says:

And one more BIG issue, the reply, reply, reply chains.  IF there are send, replies back and forth, after 5 iterations, STOP, e-mail is not the proper tool for this communication.

Jan 6, 2011 10:29 AM mila garcia mila garcia  says: in response to Ann All

.... and it's my favorite color, as well :-p

Jan 6, 2011 10:31 AM Ann All Ann All  says: in response to mila garcia

Love it for lipstick, nail polish, sweaters. Email not so much.

Jan 7, 2011 6:31 PM Bob Bob  says:

Please if you must forward that funny joke your mom or your brother sent you clean it up.  Remove the 25 other forwards out of the top of it first.  Make it look neat and clean so we don't have to scroll down half a mile to read it. Most of the time I just wont and I will hit delete.

Jan 7, 2011 7:42 PM Lucy Lucy  says: in response to Bob

I agree with initial post.  I am shocked at the state of many of the emails I see (more so when these are from people more senior in rank to myself.) Given so much is communicated electronically these days it ceases to amaze me how unprofessional many people are....perhaps a gap in the market for an keen enthusiast!!!


DO NOT let YOUR WINDOWS down TO SHARE YOUR MUSIC WITH THE WORLD! Guess what we don't want hear it.TURN IT DOWN! I have saw many people that I call the IDIOTS pure idiots that  play their music so loud their car vibrates.I  want get out of my car and bitch slap the idiot.YOU ARE NOT COOL OK?Hope you get the message......You are the only one that thinks your cool.Play your music for your ears only. LOL I look over and the IDIOT is  looking around to see who is looking HA too funny:) Goodday!



Jan 10, 2011 6:29 PM Adrian van Eeden Adrian van Eeden  says:

This may be somewhat dated (1995) but the internet RFC standards also include a guideline - RFC 1855.  On perusal many of the clauses are still completely appropriate.  http://www.faqs.org/rfcs/rfc1855.html

Jan 12, 2011 9:11 AM Paula Harrell Paula Harrell  says:

Another thing I hate is when customers send me the same email 15 times.. after I have replied with a polite customer support reminder.  Its not getting your problem fixed any faster and makes you look unprofessional for estimating damage that you can't fix yourself.  Ask for timelines and factual evidence not a million emails.

Jan 12, 2011 9:17 AM deserth7 deserth7  says:

Regarding the use of colors, additionally many colors will not display the same as the created color or not display at all, thus loosing the author's initial intent when using color.

You need to mention the "Reply All" problem in that by replying to a poor email (like the one you referenced) using "Reply All" you will have increased the problem by sending your response to many people who did not want or need to see the response.

Jan 12, 2011 9:26 AM steven steven  says:

Good suggestions, but guidelines can vary a bit depending on your industry it seems.

Threads with a long list of replies back and forth (regularly more than 5) are very common in my area, and are actually quite effective at keeping all relevant information nicely consolidated in one place.  I do edit out the repeated disclaimers though.

With regards to telephone followups, I do that on occasion, but not as a replacement for another email reminder.  I need the audit trail of an email message.

Jan 12, 2011 9:42 AM Silent254 Silent254  says:

Do I, should I, really care about all these silly things?

People are wasting too much time on emails - writing, reading and analyzing.

And others are wasting too much time commenting on email "etiquettes".

Jan 12, 2011 9:55 AM Andy Knaster Andy Knaster  says:

One very simple thing was missed as a reason to not use the various accoutrements when writing an e-mail message. Many people read their messages with a handheld device or in plain text so the meaningless colors don't even show up.

Another thing that I consider an etiquette issue is the length of content. Detailed instructions ought not to be e-mailed. If there are more than three or four steps, consider using an attachment, particularly if the instructions might be re-used.

Jan 12, 2011 8:44 PM Anh Karam Anh Karam  says: in response to KELLY MCRAINEY MOORE

hey!  we are discussing about email etiquette here.  And, I think you should read the article one more time before you post your comment.  You are using way too many "All Caps" fonts!

Jan 12, 2011 8:52 PM dgonos dgonos  says:

I found myself yelling "Amen!" to every point you made except one.  Make no mistake.  I love e-mail.  It has improved my life both personally and professionally.  That said, call me a Ludite, but there are certain functions that are best done by phone, and one of those is Customer Service.  Your article said to resort to the phone after 2 unsuccessful attempts to resolve an issue.  In my somewhat informed opinion, that's too generous.  One unsuccessful attempt is enough!  Then the phone is warranted.

Jan 12, 2011 8:59 PM Kent Estes Kent Estes  says:

Nice post Lora, but I think you were way too kind to the re-sender. Obviously if the message was not well received or correctly followed the first time, it was not properly written and resending would do no more good than the first iteration. Not including an opening statement that mentions common failures or errors and addressing who and why the re-mail was necessary is not only discourteous, but useless. I won't even go into addressing the adolescent demeanor of one who would take the time to Bold and color the original e-mail without taking the lesser time of an introductory statement.

Having said all this, I will admit that I am guilty of not fully reading the content of words in e-mails as exemplified by the 5 responses from/to a consultant explaining what correction was needed in an online PDF form.

To wit, if you are giving instructions in an email, use an outline with numbered headers at each level of numbered instruction with step by step commentaries that reflect the exact wording in the application, thereby allowing a defined media that can be discussed with clarity.

Jan 13, 2011 2:00 PM John Manthey John Manthey  says:

I would like to add one to the list.  Do not use "Reply to All."  Maybe Microsoft will remove it in the next release of Outlook.

Jan 15, 2011 2:01 PM Owen Owen  says: in response to Silent254

It's not wasting time on writing emails, but a way of life now. There is no way you can function now without using it and posts like these give some good basic advice. For example I run a company that is on-line based, I've never ever saw any of my associates to face, we don't even live on the same continent, we converse by email or skype. So I disagree with what you have said and the same way you wound't burst into someones place in 4am you wound, hopefully restrain your self from writing a CAPS ON email - it equals shouting at the other person.

I'm on the other hand guilty of putting these guys in my emails :o) but I hope nobody finds them offensive

Jan 18, 2011 12:43 PM Godswill Ntsomboh Godswill Ntsomboh  says: in response to John Manthey

This is interesting. Formal writing is almost giving way...I really needed to read through such in order to avoid silly mistakes with e-mailing.

Jan 21, 2011 11:08 AM Jose Silva Jose Silva  says:


I have to say that I was a bit disappointed with this post. Let me explain myself... I've seen:

- a whole sentence in the subject, and then "Regards, signature" in the body. That's just annoying...

- mails with over 10 paragraphs... like a testament. When you have 100 or more e-mail per day, large e-mails are just impossible to be handled.

- mails with short writing, as if it is a SMS (or with lots of acronyms).

- mails with small time questions or asking for things that could have been handled via another mean of communication (skype perhaps). It just helps flooding your mail box with garbage content.

- mails where you are not needed to respond, but people put in the "to" field (instead of the "CC" field).

There are other examples of bad email usage... the ones that you pointed are, no doubt, important, but I would not rate them as top 5 (except for your first bullet).

Jan 25, 2011 11:25 AM LNSu LNSu  says: in response to KELLY MCRAINEY MOORE

Emailing ediquitte is an excellent topic.

One should mention to take a moment to look for typos.

And Dear Kelly, a response to an article and or email should be on topic. If someone is driving you crazy with a habit (i.e. Loud music) take up with that said somebody. It is rude of you to come on a forum and "scream" at others for something they had nothing to do with.

Good topic and great post; it is a shame as long as people have been doing email that polite tips are still needed.

Feb 3, 2011 10:48 AM Bill O Bill O  says: in response to Silent254

You should care if you are in any type of business environment. Like it or not, email is a mature communication medium that is absolutely vital to today's business world. It is no different than following letter writing etiquette 20 years ago.

All you have to do is unplug the email server and see how many calls the IT gets within 10 minutes!


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