Although social media and text messaging have taken over what was once the domain (so to speak) of email inboxes, much of our day-to-day correspondence still takes place on platforms like Gmail, Microsoft Outlook, and Yahoo!. Whether it’s a quick message about an afternoon meeting or a long-winded exchange of life news once a year, emails are still a common way for people to communicate.
As with any communication medium, email exchanges come with a set of codified manners that elegant, professional adults are expected to follow. Unfortunately this is rarely emphasized in school or work training. Like letter writing, email etiquette has largely fallen by the wayside as we enter a more fast-paced and casual era of communication.
It’s still important to mind your manners when it comes to emails, however. One of the tenets of this platform is cultivating elegance – this means that for anyone who agrees with Bougie On A Budget’s deeper message, manners matter. Here at BoB we don’t sacrifice etiquette for efficiency. After all, email correspondence is often the first impression someone has of you, and making a good one can be integral to your professional, social, and community life.
This guide with review the why, how, and when of email etiquette, and by the end of it you’ll be ready to rethink the way you hit that “send” button. It all starts with the simple, age-old greeting. So, without further ado: Dear Reader…
Just Kidding: The Real Story Begins With Your Subject Line
As a business owner, I receive a large volume of emails from people who are looking to work with me. Some are offering services, while others are seeking expert advice on a topic I’m experienced with. I also read a large number of email newsletters, which are, I’ll admit, a slight addiction of mine.
Nothing irks me more than a low-effort, irrelevant email subject line.
Is that high-maintenance of me? Well, so be it – I am busy, as are most of us, and if someone cannot tell me precisely what they are sending to my inbox, I’m far less likely to open the email at all. Your subject line is a way of saying, “hello, I consider you important enough to spend some time on this email and make sure you have all the right information.”
A concise, descriptive, grammatically correct subject line is the first thing a person sees next to your name when you send an email. You want that association to be a positive one. Here are two examples of good email subject lines, taken right from a few of my inboxes:
- “Response To Quote Request From _______” – This subject line is clear and to-the-point, which is appropriate for a professional email and quickly ensures that the recipient is aware of who sent the message and why it is being received.
- “2020 Updates And Pictures From The _______ Family: Happy Holidays!” – Again, I am told exactly who this message is from (the sender’s family), what it contains (updates and pictures), and why they are sending it (it’s a holiday message).
A marketing email would follow different principles, but the basic etiquette is the same. Senders who care about their product or service’s integrity won’t use vague, click-bait, or gimmicky subject lines when they send out a promotion or update. If you are messaging potential customers, you obviously want to entice them to look at what you’re sending – but you should also be honest and clear with them about what the message contains.
This is good business (clarity and consideration mean the people who open those messages are more likely to take advantage of what you’re offering, after all) as well as good manners!
Essentially, a subject line should be capitalized, clear, concise (short), and it should include any basic information that a recipient would want to know before they dive into the message’s content. Don’t neglect this chance for a first impression!
The Greatness Of A Good Email Greeting
You might be amazed to find that there is a set of manners specific to a detail as small as your email greeting, but it makes sense when you consider the potential impression that first line could make. “Could” is the operative word here: some greetings are made to be glossed over, and others are crafted to communicate tone and context.
Either way, people who fail to craft a decent one – or *gasp* who neglect to include a greeting at all – tend to make a negative mark on the recipient even when neither of them consciously realizes it.
Like a subject line, an email’s greeting is the sender’s way of communicating the importance and respect they assign to the recipient. A brusque line such as “[Name] – ” communicates either an established, authority-to-subordinate relationship or plain rudeness depending on the context.
You may have noted that I have already repeated the word context several times. This is not by accident. When it comes to writing an email greeting, context is the most important factor to consider. What is your relationship to the recipient? Your greeting is a way to communicate the answer to this question.
If you are writing to an old friend, a funny greeting that includes an inside joke might be appropriate…but if you send something like that to your corporate manager, things could get awkward. Likewise, a blunt, cold greeting to a friend might put them off. Too many people use the same greeting for everyone they email, regardless of context. This is either a breach of etiquette at worst, or at best a wasted opportunity.
Professional emails shouldn’t use endearments – even a “dear …..” could be switched out for something more businesslike – and should communicate efficiency, respect, and your specific relationship. An individual superior or department might receive a simple “To ______________:” whereas a colleague or intern might get a friendlier “Hi, ______,.”
A marketing email would be forgiven for using some humor, if it suits the brand, or an unconventional greeting that generates interest in the brand’s offering. A recent and well-received newsletter I opened recently began with “Dear Reader Who Probably Forgot They Signed Up For This Newsletter…” It made me smile, and I was more warmed up to the content of the message.
Essentially, both the subject line and greeting in an email communicate context. Context sets the tone for how the rest of your message is read, so it’s important to establish it well!
The (Email) Body-Mind Connection: Are You Conveying Or Are You Communicating?
Having set up the tone and context of your email, your job now switches to living up to both of those promises. This is a matter of integrity – which is one of the most central features of etiquette no matter what you happen to be doing.
Much of an email sender’s integrity boils down to their ability to communicate with the recipient in a relevant way, as opposed to simply conveying one-sided information that may or may not be of great interest to the person receiving it. Basically, email is communication, and communication is (at least) two-sided.
This is why even a cut-and-dry professional email should include an introductory sentence or paragraph that builds on the respect communicated by the subject line and greeting. Customarily you would want to express interest in the particular person/people you are addressing. If you know them well, this can be through a specific example, such as “I hope you and your son, _________, are doing well and keeping up with X shared hobby/goal/passion!”
If you are less familiar with the recipient, something more general would be appropriate, such as “Thank you for your help with X project – your advice/work was extremely useful in achieving X and X. I hope you have been well and are making progress on your goal of X…”
The traditional expression of “I hope you are well” is optional, but I always include it in my emails as a matter of good practice. The main thing is to communicate something specific to the email’s recipient that marks them out as “special” and shows them that you took the time to remember details about them. This is, again, all about integrity – in this case it’s about honoring the other person and demonstrating respect or care.
The rest of the email’s body will be specific to the context of your communication with the recipient, so there aren’t any detailed manners to remember here. Some broad ones are:
- Take care to use proper grammar (including punctuation, division of paragraphs, and spelling), and always give your message a proofread before sending it.
- Keep your overall tone and relationship with the recipient in mind and do not deviate from either in your message.
- Avoid going off-topic in between paragraphs – organize your message in a linear, easy-to-read way, and make sure it makes sense in an objective way.
- Save questions for the end of the email, and consider bolding them so that they are easy to find; it’s also good manners to include a “warning” about questions in your introductory paragraph, or as a separate line after the intro (ie “I have a few questions about _________, and I wanted to go over the information/situation/subject with you before asking them…”).
As for the last point, questions in a personal email do not need to be noted in the introduction. They should still be saved for the end of the email, however, as your main topic (updates about your life, a note about an interesting article, etc) should come first and provide the context.
One thing I personally recommend is that you make use of the bold, italicize, and underline settings included in the word processors of most emails. These can make the information you’re communicating easier to digest, convey tone, and add a more personal touch to your correspondence.
Again, always proofread messages before sending them – nothing is worse than spotting a terribly embarrassing typo or incorrect information in an email you’ve already sent!
Mastering The Conclusion
The way you conclude an email is almost as important as how you begin one. The conclusion, including the ending line, should provide a recap and then all the pertinent contact information your recipient will need to stay in touch.
A concluding paragraph should be as short as you can make it and should only summarize the main points. This is also where you’ll include any questions you’d like to ask the other person, as well as “asks” such as a follow-up call or meeting. You can remind the recipient of your well-wishes by reiterating them (i.e. hoping they stay well, make big progress on X, etc) and clarify anything that bears repetition.
The finishing touch will be your departing line, the “Sincerely Yours” of the email. There is significantly more room for variation in the ending line than there is in the email greeting, but the same principles of context and tone apply.
For personal emails, a warm signature like “Thinking Of You, [Your Name]” or “Missing You” is fine. In a professional email, something more concise like “Sincerely, [your name]” or “Regards, [your name]” is more appropriate. This is a small detail, but it is one worth considering carefully.
Finally, it’s important that you take a moment to reflect on any concluding attachments you may have promised earlier in the email (such as pictures or files), supporting links, and contact information the recipient would appreciate having. For example, I always include my title, business web address, LinkedIn page, and business phone number beneath my name in professional emails.
Ultimately, your conclusion should leave the recipient of your message with a positive, warm feeling that matches the context and purposes of the email.
Remember: Etiquette Lies In Small Things
I will end this post with a friendly reminder: although details may seem like a hassle, they are the place where much of our communication takes place. Making sure that you pay attention to the details of an email is vital if you want to make a good impression on the person receiving it.
Email is not going anywhere, and even if it does, most of these manners apply to all online correspondence in some way or another. If you feel overwhelmed by all of this information, make yourself an email checklist and keep it somewhere convenient. Most of it will become automatic as you gain more experience.
I find that I am much less overwhelmed when I remind myself of one simple fact. Etiquette is a way of life, not an arbitrary set of rules and regulations. It is the cultivating of values that emphasize your integrity, honor, and good character as an individual, and which acknowledge the humanity and comfort of those you meet.
Whether online or off, committing to etiquette is committing to elegance – and that will make you a happier person. I look forward to our next post!