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The 21 unwritten rules of optimal email conduct

1 December 2020
Adi Ciuraru

Over the years, many unwritten rules for conducting oneself in the organizational email were developed and amassed, all in order to maintain an orderly work environment. Organizational emails are, after all, the hub of all organizational communication. Therefore, civil and efficient conduct is key to the ongoing activity, the development of positive relationships among coworkers and the improvement of overall organizational data flow.

These rules are mostly well-known yet should nevertheless be revised and explicated as they are occasionally overlooked. While some are instantly intuitive, adhering to them closely and understanding their nuances will surely benefit all parties involved.


Here are 21 rules you should be aware of:


  1. The title should always include a short description of the email's content.

    The word selection and design of the title should serve the content to be read (query/request/review/opinion) and set the tone for the text to follow. A title such as "meeting" or "requesting a meeting" is insufficiently descriptive. "would like to meet next Tuesday" or "am available next Tuesday. Can you meet?" is much more efficient.

  2. Short and concise message. This is a time saver, and more importantly, shows you respect the addressee's time. Clear and concise content encourages quicker cooperation, saves time, and promotes efficiency. It is a win-win situation for everyone.

  3. Hierarchical text organization. Organizing your email content should serve the primary content and differentiate it from the complementary or secondary data. Present your question or task right at the top of the email. The right choice of words will design a sentence explicitly stating to what the addressee should pay attention.

  4. Write like you talk, but keep it classy. Email communication can be friendly and entirely informal. However, we still wish to sound professional. Therefore, use of slang is to be avoided. Keep it clean and articulate, while natural and flowing. Obviously, the exact balance varies among workers.

  5. Proofread before sending. An email with a typo or sloppy phrasing is useless. Before sending, it is vital to check all textboxes: the subject line, addressee, recipients, content, and signature. If necessary, edit. This includes a full review of syntax, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

  6. Review attached files before sending. As with the email itself, it is crucial to ensure the attached files are indeed the files you wish to share. A mistake can lead to the exposure of sensitive, classified information. It may lead, in less dramatic scenarios, to the exposure of irrelevant or outdated data (such as the file's previous versions). It is equally important to state a file was attached (and indeed attach one!).

  7. Urgency. We constantly receive many emails labeled 'urgent'. However, some are actually urgent while other are far from that. If you require a response by a certain date- state so. If your request isn't urgent, state so as well.

  8. Specificity: it is best to make every question as specific as possible. "what do you think about this proposition?" is insufficient. "can we continue with the supply offer for 20,000$ by Friday?"- much better.

  9. Use of bullets or numbered lists. A great way to convey short messages is through bullets or numbers (when referring to a sequence). They air out the text and are easier to read or skin through than dense text documents. However, excessive use of bullets will lead to an overloaded, confusing email.

  10. Bold, underlining and italics. Everyone knows that fonts can be designed by underlining, slanting and emphasizing it. However, these features can be confusing. For example, underlining can be mistaken to be a hyperlink rather than a mere highlighting.

  11. Choosing the right font. Not all fonts suit every purpose. Some are creative, such as ALGERIAN, and are less suitable for reading entire paragraphs. That said, they can be used for your signature (if that's your style). In any case, it's best to choose a fixed, readable font for your email that is neither distracting nor excessively dense. Furthermore, make sure you choose a popular font so users indeed view what you meant to present them.

  12. Responding when preoccupied. What to do when you can't respond to an incoming email? Inform the sender when you will make time to respond to the email.

  13. Redundant exclamation marks. Exclamation marks not only set the content's tone, it also tells the address how they should feel towards it. I all depends on the context. "Great to see you!" or "that looks fantastic!" is certainly different than "add jack to the mailing list!", or "I asked you to do that yesterday!". In short, there are more disadvantages than advantages to using exclamation marks. Use them rarely, as texts could do without them.

  14. Choosing a minimal group of addressees. As mentioned above, emails must express consideration of those receiving them. When dealing with an entire group, its best to understand who must really get involved. It's always better to check what is the smallest number of workers this task may require. The more people receive the email, the less responsibility each feels towards responding.

  15. Respond to all? The 'respond to all' feature should be saved for rare occasions, when it is actually required. We've all struggled with a needlessly overpacked inbox. Irrelevant incoming emails are both time wasters and inbox cloggers. These are the nuances that comprise any organizational culture.

  16. When to stop. Regardless of your opinion regarding the efficiency of elongated email threads, there is a point in which they become a nuisance. 20 responses of approval seem more than redundant.

  17. New recipients of a long thread. You've discussed a matter in length and have now decided to invite another organization worker to express their opinion on said matter. Great idea, but you can't expect them to now sit and read the entire thread. That's what summaries are for: write a short introduction to the issue at hand, then ask them a specific question. For example, "Amit, we are still discussed this coming December's planned events. We have yet to decide whether to include the development team or limit the event to us only. What are your thoughts regarding this dilemma?".

  18. Hijacking a thread: we might be following a thread to read the responses and reach a conclusion regarding the issue discussed. But then- someone "hijacks" the thread for an entirely different issue. This is certainly wrong and inefficient. Instead, start a new thread (specifically and explicitly titled for relevant addressees only).

  19. Don't change the subject! If I haven't made it clear by now, planning and organizing texts mainly serves us. We write emails with the intention of later locating and retrieving when needed. So someone responds and changes the subject line is illogical. People might do it to be more efficient, updating the subject line to reflect the current state of the matter at hand. However, this should be done minimally. For example, if the original subject line was " Yearly Knowledge Management presentation", it can later read "Yearly Knowledge Management presentation- final version".

  20. Don't push it. It is impolite and annoying to send another email less than 48 hours from the time the first one was sent (unless this is a critically urgent matter).

  21. Angry emails. If you've received an angry email or intend on sending one, just wait. You will probably regret this rash decision. Save these matters, if necessary, for a phone call or a meeting in person.

There is so much more to discuss, but I think these tips are a good conversation starter!

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