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Excusez-moi?!?! Business email etiquette you should know

Excusez-moi?!?! Business email etiquette you should know
Excusez-moi?!?! Business email etiquette you should know

What you do and how you behave online can often be a reflection of these same actions and qualities in real life. So make sure you’re presenting the best version of yourself and your brand.

Like many things related to manners and respect, email etiquette refers to a set of mostly unwritten rules. They’re the behavioral guidelines and principles that govern polite, courteous, and professional email conduct.

Although digital mishaps among friends could be something to laugh at during your next social get together, similar mishaps in a business environment can be unforgivable. They can not only damage your professional relationships, but also stain your brand and reputation.

Some aspects of email etiquette can be adapted to audience, context, purpose, and familiarity with recipients, but it’s never a bad idea to observe general email etiquette across the board.

Play it safe in business settings and follow these 10 simple email etiquette tips:

Know your recipients

Understand exactly who your reader is. For instance, a hip and slang-filled message you’d send to a musician in show biz won’t be appropriate with an executive in the financial industry. So don’t expect your recipient to cater to your writing style; adapt your writing to your reader’s professional expectations.

Other audience-focused things to keep in mind:

  • Be mindful of cultural and linguistic differences.
  • Humor is very subjective, so avoid it unless you’re sure your recipient would appreciate it.
  • Avoid acronyms and industry jargon unless the recipient is from that industry.
  • Use inclusive language.
  • Avoid offensive or sexist language.

Choose clarity over cute

This is especially true for your subject headings and opening paragraph. Don’t get me wrong, I love creative and entertaining copy—that’s my jam. But in professional settings, you need to get to the point and you need to do it quickly. If it takes a long time for your email recipients to uncover your intent or main message, you’re making them work way too hard. So when the spotlight’s on you, don’t ramble. Make your point clear and concise, drop the mic, and exit stage left.

Avoid the subject line bait and switch

Although advertisers use this eye-catching technique quite often to entice people to open their messages, avoid this when communicating directly with colleagues and clients.

Your subject line should honestly reflect the meaning and intent of the content the message holds. So don’t use “URGENT! Immediate action required!” only to go on to ask your team where they’d like to go for Friday night’s happy hour in the email body.

This can result in several things:

  • They may resent you for the bait and switch.
  • It shows a lack of respect for people’s time.
  • When done too often, it can eventually lessen the gravitas of genuinely urgent messages.

Reply… even when you can’t

Communication is a two-way street—especially when it comes to senders with whom you already have an established relationship. So do your best to avoid leaving a colleague’s or client’s email unanswered for more than a full business day (unless you're out of office).

Even a simple “I’ll get back to you on this tomorrow” goes a long way toward acknowledging the sender and keeping the lines of communication open. Don’t freeze them out for days and force them to follow up with you multiple times.

The exception to this etiquette rule is unsolicited messages. In my former life, while working as a technology journalist, I’d receive dozens of unsolicited messages per day from PR professionals asking me to cover their clients’ news, freelance writers looking for guest post opportunities, and SEO experts with backlink requests. It was impossible to answer every one of them—or at all.

Set your out-of-office reply

The longer you plan to be away from your email, the more important it is to set a proper out-of-office reply. There’s nothing worse than sending an important message to someone—especially if it requires an urgent reply or if your decisions rely on their information—and hearing nothing back for days or weeks.

So set up a proper auto-reply message, telling senders how long you’ll be away. It would also be useful to provide the contact information of someone else who may be able to help while you’re away.

Use an appropriate greeting

Remember what I said about knowing your audience? The same applies with your greeting and introduction—especially when sending messages to someone you don’t know.

I’ve received multiple genuine business-related cold outreach emails that started with some variation of “Hi sweetie”, “Hello my dear”, or “Hey bro”. It’s cringe, and they just booked themselves a first-class ticket to the trash bin.

Do you really need to use “reply all”?

An initial group email may have been sent to multiple recipients for informational purposes, but only truly meant for one person. If you’re that person, consider whether your reply—and subsequent discussion—should truly involve all recipients or be between you and the sender.

It can be frustrating and distracting to be looped into a long discussion thread if you’re only tangentially connected with its subject. So take a moment to consider whether everyone in the group message needs to see your reply.

Think before you forward

Whenever you receive a message from someone, 99.9% of the time they’re expecting you to be the only person reading it. It’s very poor etiquette to just forward it off to someone else because you don’t want to deal with it.

The sender may include private or even sensitive information that they don’t want anyone else to read. If you truly need to forward the message to delegate action, check with the sender first or summarize and send your own message.

Use blind carbon copy when appropriate

Effective use of your email’s blind carbon copy (BCC) not only shows respect for other people’s email address and privacy, but it’s also smart business practice.

Imagine this: You’re in the middle of the hiring process. But one of the key decision-makers is out of office so you need to send a message to all candidates that the final decision will be slightly delayed. Would you want every candidate to see the name and email address of the other candidates? Of course not. BCC all day long.

Proofread before you send

An error-ridden business email is not only a sign of sloppiness, but it can also be interpreted as a complete lack of respect for the person reading the message.

While you can get away with mistakes in casual emails with someone you know well, it can reflect very poorly on you—and even create considerable embarrassment—in a business setting.

A story pitch about workplace dynamics once made its way to my inbox, where a memorable typo read “Workplace culture needs to be cultivated. It’s a living, breathing orgasm.” Ummmm, I believe the word you’re looking for is “organism”. So take a few minutes to reread your message before you hit the send button. The more important the email, the more important these extra minutes.

Closing thoughts…

You may have spent thousands, or even millions, of dollars on marketing, advertising, and branding in order to perfect your image. Don’t unravel this with a careless email or lack of an email. Simply observing proper email etiquette—a relatively low-effort, no-cost activity—can go a long way to showing courtesy, respect, and professionalism. And these are qualities money can’t buy.