Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right. No elbows on the table. Never point at someone.
Let’s be honest. While all etiquette rules were originally designed for the purposes of maintaining civility and respect, many of them are either ridiculous, impractical, or a superficial waste of time. So if you saw the word “etiquette” in this title and thought to yourself, “take a look at this fancy-pants trying to tell me how to email like I’m from the Victorian era,” I wouldn’t immediately blame you.
But email etiquette is less about adhering to purposeless traditions, and more about trying to improve mutual productivity, show respect, and ensure you’re able to compensate for the weaknesses of the medium. We’ve all embarrassed ourselves by sending an inappropriate email in the past (and if you think you haven’t, you probably just haven’t realized it), and the rules of email etiquette are designed to spare you that embarrassment in the future.
So what are those email etiquette rules? I’m so glad you asked.
Table of Contents
- The Golden Standards for Email Etiquette
- Email Etiquette Rules to Follow
- 1. Use an appropriate email address for yourself.
- 2. Use a concise, accurate subject line.
- 3. Introduce yourself if you haven’t yet met.
- 4. Respect the difference between “To” and “CC.”
- 5. Don’t abuse the CC field.
- 6. Don’t “copy up.”
- 7. Don’t abuse reply all.
- 8. Keep it to one email (thread) per subject.
- 9. Keep your messages concise and to the point.
- 10. Write more than a sentence.
- 11. Don’t use all caps or exclamation points to make a point.
- 12. Avoid slang, emoticons, and text-speak.
- 13. Avoid excessive use of color.
- 14. Use bold and italics to clarify meaning or draw attention.
- 15. Use bullet points, lists, and paragraph breaks to make things easier on your readers.
- 16. Don’t get experimental with fonts.
- 17. Be extra wary of your tone.
- 18. Use humor sparingly and confidently.
- 19. Never send an emotional email.
- 20. Always re-read emails before sending them.
- 21. Don’t abuse the high priority marker.
- 22. Avoid negativity in emails.
- 23. Avoid offensiveness in emails.
- 24. Don’t forward chain letters.
- 25. Reply within 1 business day (if you can).
- 26. Follow the mutual relationship of reply speed and length.
- 27. Provide “if-then” options when possible.
- 28. You have a spell checker—make use of it!
- 29. Provide a warning if and when sending a large attachment.
- 30. Don’t send more than three attachments on a single email without warning.
- 31. Compress and/or resize attachments when you can.
- 32. Greet and close in a way appropriate for your audience.
- 33. Use a signature that includes your contact information.
- 34. Know when an email isn’t appropriate.
- 35. Understand that cultures write (and read) differently.
- 36. Don’t share personal or confidential information.
- 37. Avoid the temptation to pile on.
- 38. Reply to emails mistakenly sent to you.
- 39. Do follow up with busy people (after 48 hours).
- 40. Never send more than three follow-ups (unless specifically instructed otherwise).
- 41. Articulate key action items and/or takeaways separately.
- 42. If there is no action needed, say so.
- 43. Clarify key points of forwarded emails.
- 44. Edit forwarded emails.
- 45. Use away messages when you’re… away.
- 46. Check your spam folder periodically.
- 47. Clarify assumptions when appropriate.
- 48. Invite alternative means of communication if necessary.
- 49. Add your recipient address(es) last.
- 50. Double check that name spelling.
- 51. Train your underlings in the art of email.
- Related posts:
The Golden Standards for Email Etiquette
There’s no official rulebook or ancient tome for email etiquette, but almost every written or unwritten rule we follow falls into one of a few main categories.
Email etiquette is all about adhering to these principles:
- Don’t waste peoples’ time. Email can be a graciously efficient medium, but it can also be an agonizingly tedious one. Many etiquette rules are about minimizing wasted time for senders and recipients; in other words, if your recipient has to spend an extra 10 minutes deciphering your meaning or taking action on your email, you messed something up and they’re probably going to be rightfully irritated with you.
- Be respectful. Email etiquette is also about demonstrating respect—the foundation of any personal or professional relationship. Paying attention to others’ needs, acknowledging others’ statuses, and sending messages with consideration will improve your reputation and minimize the chance of offense or hurt feelings.
- Think through your messages. Hasty messages are problematic for several reasons. They tend to contain more errors (which lead to miscommunication), they often fall short of being comprehensive, and they indicate a lack of care on the part of the writer. Etiquette requires you to think through your words.
- Use the medium to its greatest strengths. And be mindful of its weaknesses. I’m a big email fan, but I also don’t put it on a pedestal. It’s ideal for writing out paragraphs of information, and its permanency and flexible availability make it ideal for message storage—but it’s not the blue-ribbon winner for expressing emotion, conveying tone, or maintaining a dialogue. Some of these rules focus on using email to its greatest strengths, and avoiding using it when another medium will do the job better.
Seems pretty sensible, right?
Email Etiquette Rules to Follow
Now let’s take a look at some of the most important email etiquette rules to follow, why you should follow them, and of course, how you can follow them without making an ass of yourself:
1. Use an appropriate email address for yourself.
First, use an appropriate email address—which usually means a ([email protected]) style address, or something similarly tied to your company’s domain. Your “[email protected]” address somehow won’t have the same effect. This is partially about making a good impression, and showing respect to the people you’re emailing, but it’s also about preventing your email from winding up in a spam folder. A professional email address will make readers take your message more seriously, and show that you’re taking this seriously too. See our guide to professional email address ideas for help choosing the perfect email address!
2. Use a concise, accurate subject line.
For the sake of all that is holy, don’t leave that subject line blank. It’s there for a reason. Most people glance at the subject line of incoming emails to brace for what they can expect from the message. Others use subject lines to quickly categorize and prioritize the emails in their inbox. Still others rely on it for searching and organizing. If you send an email without a subject line, you’re essentially giving a subtle middle finger to everyone who falls into these categories—all so you can save a few seconds of writing. The ideal subject line is 15 words or less, concise, and relevant to the message. Short subject lines like “Hello?” or “Lunch” are occasionally, but rarely, appropriate. Instead, opt for something like “Just checking in,” or “Lunch this Friday?” to add specificity and ensure your recipient will be able to judge the overall content of your message at a glance – and appropriately prioritize when to read it. For help, see our post on subject lines for networking emails.
3. Introduce yourself if you haven’t yet met.
Sooner or later you’ll run into a situation where you have to email someone you haven’t met before—or at least someone you haven’t emailed before. You know as well as anybody that it’s kind of annoying to get an email from a total stranger, and you’ll likely open the email with an aggravated bias against the person who sent it. If you immediately launch into a request, or a sales pitch, they’re going to delete the email without a second thought. Instead, take a second to introduce yourself. For example, you might say, “Hey – this is Mark. We met at the froyo place a few days ago and I wanted to follow up with you,” or “You don’t know me, but I got your email from Percy, who said you were interested in buying vintage Uno cards.” Context is critical to making the right first impression—especially in sales. For help, see our guide on how to introduce yourself in an email.
4. Respect the difference between “To” and “CC.”
Look at the “To” field. Now look at the “CC” field. These are two distinct fields for a reason, yet many inexperienced emailers use them indiscriminately. In case you aren’t familiar, the CC field is intended to be used for people who should receive a copy of the email you’re sending, yet additional recipients in the “To” field may also receive a copy of the email. People in the “To” field should be your primary intended recipients, while the CC field is meant as a courtesy to keep others in the loop. As a general rule, if you expect a response from someone, they belong in the “To” field. If not, they belong in the “CC” field. And if you want to respect the CC’d person’s privacy, they belong in the BCC field. For more, see our in-depth posts covering what CC means and when to use it as well as a guide to using BCC for email.
5. Don’t abuse the CC field.
That said, you can’t use the CC field as an excuse to hedge your bets and copy everyone you know even marginally interested in the content of your message. We all know that one coworker who feels the need to CC an entire department on an email letting someone know about a new project. I could rant for days about why unnecessary CC’s reduce employee productivity, but here’s the basic idea; it only takes you a second to add each person to the CC field, but it might take the CC’d recipient a couple minutes of time to read your email, figure out whether it’s truly relevant to them, and recategorize it appropriately. That’s not even taking into consideration the additional notifications everyone will get as, inevitably, the other recipients “reply all” to the conversation, perpetuating the CC time-suck.
6. Don’t “copy up.”
In case you aren’t familiar, “copying up” is the practice of emailing an employee and CCing their immediate supervisor or boss without it being necessary to do so. Sometimes, this is done as a means of coercion or persuasion; the writer may be copying up to ensure their request gets met, threatening to get the boss involved if it isn’t. Other times, it’s done to shame or tattle on the employee. Either way, it’s a jerk move. Not only will the direct recipient be resentful of the practice, you’ll also be wasting their boss’s time. If you truly have a grievance that an employee is not willing or able to solve, you can contact the boss directly or threaten to get them involved in a more professional, courteous tone.
7. Don’t abuse reply all.
Keeping in line with these etiquette tips about CCing, be wary of the reply all feature. A reply all email seems like a normal message to you, but it’s going to be sent to several people at once, occupying their attention and forcing them to spend extra time reading and organizing the thread. You’ll also be adding complexity to the thread itself, making it harder to search through for pertinent information. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever reply all—it just means you should make sure your message is a) relevant to everyone in the thread and b) important enough to mention. A simple “got it” isn’t necessary, and if you reply all with a message that opens up a completely separate conversation line, may all the gods have mercy on your soul.
8. Keep it to one email (thread) per subject.
Some people see email as a window that establishes a conversational connection with another person. They start an email thread on one conversational track, and feel free to switch to another at their own discretion, the same way a verbal conversation might wander to different subjects. But email is a different animal; part of the reason it’s such an awesome medium for communicative productivity is because it allows you to compartmentalize your conversations, and easily organize them. The second you introduce a separate conversation into the mix, you force your recipient to abandon all hope of easily categorizing the conversation. So please, keep it to one email thread per subject; if you think of something else you need to ask the person about, open another email chain or give them a call to talk it out.
9. Keep your messages concise and to the point.
Transformers 4: Age of Extinction had a 2 hour, 45 minute runtime. Was that amount of time absolutely necessary to cover the requisite plot points? Did audiences feel that every second of screen time was used deliberately, and with artistic merit? My guess is no, that the movie was unnecessarily long, despite individual respectable moments of giant robots fighting. Every email you send takes time to read, and it’s your responsibility to maximize the value of that time. Every sentence you write should have meaning, and you shouldn’t add more content than necessary to make your point.
10. Write more than a sentence.
At the same time, most emails do require you to write more than a simple sentence, or a single word. Occasionally, you’ll get an email where this is appropriate; for example, “Are we on track to hit the deadline?” could be met with “Yes, I don’t foresee any issues.” But if your response is too ambiguous, it will force the original sender to reach out to you again, prolonging the conversation unnecessarily, or even worse, force them to make an assumption about what you mean, and possibly open the door to a miscommunication. Don’t underestimate proper communication effectiveness.
11. Don’t use all caps or exclamation points to make a point.
I KNOW IT’S OCCASIONALLY TEMPTING TO WRITE A MESSAGE IN ALL CAPS WHEN YOU WANT TO EMPHASIZE SOMETHING. But writing in all caps makes it sound like you’re yelling, and is generally seen as unprofessional. On top of that, all caps text is harder to read than sentence case text, prolonging the time it takes your recipients to read your message. Exclamation points are similarly seen as unprofessional in some circumstances, especially if you use several of them at the end of your sentence!!! If you’ve written your message articulately enough, the content will speak for itself. In rare cases, a single exclamation point can be used to add personality or flavor to your message. For example: “Thanks!” instead of “Thanks.”
12. Avoid slang, emoticons, and text-speak.
Those damn millennials have ruined our language. Oh wait, almost every age group has a subset of the population who uses emoticons frequently. How you personally feel about emoticons, text-speak, abbreviations, and slang depends on whether you’re a linguistic descriptivist or prescriptivist, but regardless of your personal tastes, it’s generally accepted that email isn’t an acceptable medium in which to use them. Most slang terms and abbreviations aren’t universally known or accepted, and emoticons leave too much room for ambiguity; email is meant to be a place for precise, professional, and objective communication, so leave these casual bits of communicative flair out of them.
13. Avoid excessive use of color.
I’m lucky to have avoided frequent encounters with people who use different colors in the text of their emails, but it’s still a piece of etiquette worth noting—in case the thought ever crosses your mind. Some email platforms allow you to use different text colors in the body of your email, or in your email signature. And while a touch of brand color in your signature won’t hurt, for the most part, colors other than black and white will only make your email more difficult to read—and therefore a breach of etiquette. If you want to emphasize certain sections of text, there’s a better way to do it, such as by using bold or italics.
14. Use bold and italics to clarify meaning or draw attention.
As foretold, try using bold and italics to emphasize certain sections of text, or to draw the eyes to one section over another. For example, if you’ve written a short paragraph about a task you need done, you might use italics to call out an important step that needs to be taken in the process, or you might use bold fonts to highlight the due date. You might also use bold formatting to call out your sub-headers, or the title of each of your bullet points. Think of it as putting balloons on your mailbox to signal a party—sure, your guests can probably find you either way, but the balloons make that discovery much easier.
15. Use bullet points, lists, and paragraph breaks to make things easier on your readers.
When your email message sprawls for more than a few sentences, make sure you use special formatting to break it up. It’s hard on readers’ eyes to plow through a straight paragraph of raw information, leading to decreased comprehension and increased annoyed grumbles on the receiving end. Fortunately, you have many options to make your text more readable; bulleted lists and numbered lists are two of my favorites, especially if you have several main points to get through. But you can also use sub-headers to distinguish different sections, and use line breaks to give readers’ eyes a rest.
16. Don’t get experimental with fonts.
You’ll find differing opinions on which font is “best” for email, but unless you want to deliberately make things harder for the people you’re messaging, I suggest limiting this side of your creativity. Even simple, common choices like Helvetica and Arial can be problematic; Helvetica features letters that are extremely close together, and Arial has somewhat ambiguous letter shapes that can decrease reading speed. And don’t get me started on Comic Sans. Stick to the default, or use an email-friendly font like Georgia or Verdana consistently.
17. Be extra wary of your tone.
Okay, I’m willing to admit that email isn’t a perfect communication medium, and part of that is because it’s practically impossible to evoke tone the same way you can in person (or even over the phone). Intonation, body language, and other signals are nonexistent, so it’s easy for your tone to be misinterpreted. And sure, your recipients can probably eventually figure out what you’re trying to imply, but the polite thing to do is consider your tone proactively, and adjust your wording so there’s no ambiguity. That means limiting irony and sarcasm, even if there’s a brilliant opportunity to drop one of your witty asides. It also means softening sentences that could be read as harsh or uncaring.
18. Use humor sparingly and confidently.
There are three reasons humor is dangerous over email. First, email in a professional environment is just that—professional. Crossing the line with humor could make you seem immature, or indicate that you aren’t taking things seriously. Second, it’s hard to judge tone and delivery, which works two ways; it’s hard to ensure your joke is delivered as you intended it to be, and you’ll often have no immediate feedback on whether your joke was well-received, such as a laugh or smile. Third, and most importantly, email leaves a paper trial. If you thought making a bad joke in person was embarrassing, try having one permanently archived in your boss’s inbox. Yeesh.
19. Never send an emotional email.
No matter how happy you are in your current position, sooner or later, someone in your company (or one of your clients) is going to piss you off. When that happens, you’ll probably be tempted to send an email, detailing exactly why you’re pissed off, and what you would do in a hypothetical situation of meeting face-to-face. But sending an emotionally charged email isn’t just rude, it’s counterproductive. In a heightened emotional state, you’re more likely to say something inappropriate, or something you don’t mean—and remember, that email will live forever, almost certainly outlasting your current tantrum. Plus, receiving an angry email from someone gives them no opportunity to rebut your main points, explain their side of things, or even empathize with you—usually, this means you’ll extend and exacerbate the conflict. Instead, give yourself time before writing the email, or use a phone call to explain your feelings.
20. Always re-read emails before sending them.
You’ve likely read advice to proofread your emails before sending them before; it’s a good way to prevent a stupid mistake, and ensure your format looks professional. However, it’s also a professional courtesy; this is your chance to evaluate how someone will read your email for the first time, and adjust your wording so it’s easier for them to read and understand. It’s about good manners as much as it is protecting your own ass.
21. Don’t abuse the high priority marker.
One of the many perks of Gmail is that there isn’t a high priority marker, the way there is in Outlook. If you do use Outlook, make sure to use that high priority option only for emails that are truly high priority. Using one for an email that doesn’t warrant it is like screaming “Hey! Look at me!” in the middle of the office, but you don’t actually have anything useful to show or say. On top of that, if you use this urgency marker too frequently, people will start to doubt whether any of your emails are worth reading.
22. Avoid negativity in emails.
“Negativity” is a broad term that can refer to almost anything—venting about a bad situation, complaining about working conditions, or criticizing your coworkers. In general, it’s best to abstain from negativity over email. Doing so ensures that the bad news or harsh criticisms you have to give are framed in a warmer environment, when you can soften them with the right tone and body language. It also reduces the potential that your poorly-worded negativity could be used against you in the future, or be held with resentment, since there won’t be a permanent record of it.
23. Avoid offensiveness in emails.
While you’re at it, don’t include anything even remotely offensive over email. While I enjoy a good dark joke from time to time, I certainly wouldn’t risk telling one or responding to one over email, where it could be cataloged and referenced in the future. The best rule of thumb here is to pretend that every message you send will one day be public information, or will be read aloud at your funeral; this will force you to filter what you say, and err on the side of caution.
24. Don’t forward chain letters.
Seriously, are these still a thing? They come in many forms, but almost all of them are purely pointless emails that have some kind of hook that encourages people to keep spreading them—such as a threat of bad luck if you don’t send it, or a piece of information that’s vital to know (even if that information is based in falsehood). If you get one, even if it comes from a coworkers, nip it in the bud, and don’t send it. You’ll only be aggravating the people you send it to.
25. Reply within 1 business day (if you can).
There are conflicting theories as to the “ideal” timeframe in which you should reply to an email, but most people generally agree that the faster you respond, the better. Faster responses mean less anxiety and waiting time for the people who originally sent those messages, and usually means a faster closed loop, which results in greater team-wide productivity. That doesn’t mean you need to jump on every email you get with lightning-fast reflexes, but it does mean you should strive to respond to an email within a day or so. If you don’t have the information necessary to provide a comprehensive response, an acknowledgment message, like “I got your email—I’ll be able to give you a better answer in a few days” is suitable.
26. Follow the mutual relationship of reply speed and length.
This Muse article articulates an unwritten rule of email etiquette that’s rarely talked about; the length of your response should be roughly proportional to the time it takes you to respond. For example, if you get an email with a question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” you can respond in a minute with a “yes” or “no” and feel no guilt. If it takes you three days to respond with a “yes” or “no,” you’ve messed up. On the other hand, if an email requires a several-paragraphs-long response, you’ll have some wiggle room on response timing—sometimes taking more than a day to write out your full reply.
27. Provide “if-then” options when possible.
This piece of etiquette is all about providing complete instructions, which spares your recipient the effort of making guesses or reaching out to you for further clarification. For example, instead of saying “I assume this project is still on track for the deadline,” you can say, “if you’re on track to make the deadline, please let me know. If not, change the due date in our project management app and see if Bill can help you close the gap.” You don’t need to be comprehensive here, but try to provide more than one direction when warranted.
28. You have a spell checker—make use of it!
Gmail is full of useful settings and tools designed to make your life easier. For example, there’s both an automatic and manual spell checker that will help you ensure all the words in your email are spelled correctly. Making use of this isn’t just a way to improve your professional image; it’s a way to practically guarantee the readability of your text. If a recipient gets an email from you that’s filled with spelling errors, they may take it as an indication that you aren’t putting much thought into your work, and may spend more time wading through your message. In other words, it’s a breach of etiquette.
29. Provide a warning if and when sending a large attachment.
Every so often, you may be forced to send off a large attachment to one of your contacts, such as a video or audio recording—consider 25 MB the “average” definition of “large file.” If and when you need to send a file like this, it’s good manners to let the person know in advance. There may be a firewall or other restrictions in place that prevent them from receiving such files, and giving them a heads-up allows the two of you to work out a better solution for sending/receiving that file. Your recipient may also need to make room in their inbox, and giving them proactive notice should give them the time they need to do it.
30. Don’t send more than three attachments on a single email without warning.
It’s true that there’s a “download all” button that allows recipients to download all your attachments at once, but sending too many files on a single email can still clutter your message and make things harder to manage. If you’re going to send more than three attachments, reach out to your prospective recipient to see if they’d prefer an alternative method of delivery, or zip your files into a single block. While you’re at it, name those files appropriately so it’s easier for your recipients to search for them if and when they need to.
31. Compress and/or resize attachments when you can.
Even if your recipient is adequately prepared to handle a large attachment, it’s still good etiquette to resize your attachments when you can. Smaller attachments load quicker in the body of your email, take up less space in your recipient’s inbox, and even send faster. Chances are, if you’re sending a high-resolution image, you can reduce its size significantly without compromising the quality of the image, and zipping files can dramatically reduce their total size.
32. Greet and close in a way appropriate for your audience.
“Hey Carol, how’s it hanging?” is not an appropriate way to begin an email to someone you just met at a networking event, nor is “my sincerest gratitude,” an appropriate way to close a quick email to a friendly coworker you’ve known for years. Your salutations are an easy way to set the tone for your interactions, and show respect for the nature of your relationship—so make sure to use them appropriately. If you’re ever in doubt, simpler is better; few people would feel disrespected by a simple “Hello,” opening, or a “Thanks,” closing.
33. Use a signature that includes your contact information.
You might be a brilliant email writer, but no matter what literary and compositional tricks you use to write your email, there’s a chance your recipient won’t get what you’re saying, or might have questions about your message that aren’t easily answered over email. Accordingly, it’s good manners to have an email signature that includes alternative contact information, such as your office or cell phone number. Even if nobody seems to use it, this displays that you’re open to other methods of conversation, and acknowledges that your emails aren’t perfect.
34. Know when an email isn’t appropriate.
While you’re at it, learn to tell when email isn’t an appropriate medium. Email is best used when transmitting information one-way, when managing simple conversations, or when something needs to be permanently recorded. If you plan on having a lengthy dialogue, or if you’re discussing something that isn’t easily described in writing, a phone call may be better. If you’re dealing with a sensitive subject that requires more sensitivity and nuance, a face-to-face meeting is far superior. Sending an email when another communication medium would be better is unproductive, and in some cases, ill-mannered.
35. Understand that cultures write (and read) differently.
If you’re emailing with people who were raised in other cultures, you’ll need to adjust how you write or read emails. For example, in high-context cultures (like those in China or Japan), professionals want to get to know you on a personal level before they do business with you. Accordingly, they tend to write and prefer emails that are friendlier, warmer, and prioritize conversation that fosters the relationship. In low-context cultures (like those in Germany or Scandinavian countries), people email for business purposes almost exclusively, and would rather get to the point than spend time on personal conversation.
Because email is a permanent medium, and one that doesn’t allow for much interference from outside parties, it’s a breach of etiquette to share personal or confidential information in this format—at least with not certain precautions in place. For example, sharing someone’s birthdate or social security number is ill-advised unless you have their permission and/or are taking extra security measures. And email isn’t a good place to gossip—though I’d like to think if you’re improving your workplace etiquette, you’ll be willing to abandon gossip altogether.
37. Avoid the temptation to pile on.
Have you ever gotten a cascade of messages at the tail end of a group email conversation that go something like, “Got it,” “Yeah, me too,” “Same here,” etc.? Did you find any of these individual messages particularly valuable? It’s tempting to respond out of a sense of completeness, especially if everyone else who’s been CC’d on the thread seems to be following suit, but we’re living in a society, and these messages are often short, pointless, and annoying. Resist the temptation to pile on like this, and instead only reply if you have something new or particularly important to say. For more, see our guide on how to send a group email in Gmail.
38. Reply to emails mistakenly sent to you.
It doesn’t take much to send an email to the wrong address, especially when so many people share the same domain name. A single letter out of place, or a mis-clicked auto-filled contact could mean that your important envelope order is sent to your embroidery vendor. What a crazy mix-up! If you’re ever the recipient of an email like this, it’s unlikely that the original sender will realize their mistake on their own. It’s therefore good manners to respond, informing the original sender that they’ve contacted the wrong person by mistake. If you’re close friends with this person, you can make fun of them for it later.
39. Do follow up with busy people (after 48 hours).
If you’ve sent an email to someone and you haven’t gotten a response, it’s probably because they got busy (and your email got lost in the shuffle), or because they simply forgot about it. You’re actually doing them a favor by following up with them—but make sure to wait at least 48 hours to do it. If you reply to your own question after just a few hours, you’ll seem impatient, and pull that person away from responsibilities that are, let’s face it, almost certainly more important than your request. The only possible exception here would be if there’s an emergency, but if you’re in a high-urgency situation, you should probably use a different medium than email to get a hold of your contact. If you’re a salesperson and you’re following up with a prospect, be sure to see our top sales email follow up templates!
40. Never send more than three follow-ups (unless specifically instructed otherwise).
That said, it’s rarely a good idea to send more than three follow-ups. If you’ve followed up every two days for more than a week, it means the person isn’t going to respond to your email, or they’re getting some sick pleasure from watching you email fruitlessly. Either way, it’s pointless to continue (unless the person has specifically asked you for more reminders). At that point, it’s better to follow up with a phone call, or abandon the pursuit if it’s not that important. This is especially true if you’ve gotten a read receipt.
41. Articulate key action items and/or takeaways separately.
It may seem like your main action item, request, or takeaway is clear in the body of your email, but it’s a good idea to emphasize that main point in some separate, emphasized way. Depending on the nature of your email and the length of the action item, that could mean addressing the key point in a separate line at the top of the email, making a bulleted list of to-dos at the end of the email, or simply calling out your instructions with bold text in the body.
42. If there is no action needed, say so.
So what if you don’t have an important action item for your recipient to perform? It’s good etiquette to say so. Otherwise, your poor reader may scour the content of your message multiple times, searching for what it is they’re actually supposed to do about this, or they may take the time to draft an email to you, asking for clarification. Something simple, like “No action is currently necessary, but keep an eye on how this develops,” can save you from many miscommunications, and close your dialogue faster.
43. Clarify key points of forwarded emails.
Sometimes, it’s easier to forward an old email or email chain than it is to write a new message, especially if you’re already swamped with emails. But it’s bad etiquette to simply forward a message and hope that your recipient figures out why you forwarded it to them. Instead, include a concise message at the beginning of the forwarded message explaining why you sent it and what to do with it. Oftentimes, a simple sentence like, “Can you reach out to her and explain?” is plenty. Otherwise, you open the door to ambiguity, confusion, and misinterpretation.
44. Edit forwarded emails.
Oh boy. If you don’t take this step, it can lead to some cringy situations. Whenever you forward an email or email chain, always take the time to review the messages in that chain, and possibly edit them if they contain information you don’t want the recipient to see. Occasionally, you may encounter an old message, buried deep in the forwarded thread, that contains confidential information, or words that could be offensive or destructive to your professional relationship. A quick scrub is all it takes to spare yourself this embarrassment.
45. Use away messages when you’re… away.
Justified or not, people have grown to expect that their messages will be responded to in the span of a day or so. If you’re going on vacation, or will otherwise be unable to answer your messages, take the time to put up an automatic away message—it only takes a few minutes, and can provide people with the expectation that their emails won’t be answered for some time. It’s also good etiquette to leave an alternative contact method, such as the email address or phone number of a coworker who can help resolve an emergency. For help crafting the perfect message, see our post on the best out of office message examples. Just be sure to set a reminder so you don’t forget to take that message down when you come back.
46. Check your spam folder periodically.
Gmail does a good job of filtering out messages that don’t belong in your inbox, sparing you from the pain of seeing annoying sales emails and protecting you from more malicious messages. But sometimes, they mess up, and a message from one of your clients, or your dear old grandma, will end up there. Checking your spam folder is good etiquette; it’s hard for a sender to know that their message has been sent to spam, and this proactive step can prevent a ton of lost communications.
47. Clarify assumptions when appropriate.
You know what they say about assuming. But sometimes, you’re forced to make assumptions for the sake of brevity. For example, if you’ve received an email requesting you to write an on-site blog post for a new client, you might automatically assume that you’ll need to apply the same on-site blog parameters you would apply to a post for your own site, with no additional considerations. But to be on the safe side, it’s good to write a quick reply that spells out those assumptions. For example, something like, “I assume I should follow the same guidelines as usual? I’ll have it to you Friday,” gives the recipient detailed information about what you’re about to do, and gives them plenty of time to intervene if those assumptions are incorrect.
48. Invite alternative means of communication if necessary.
Earlier, I wrote about the importance of including alternate contact information in your email signature, in case someone wants to converse with you via other mediums. However, sometimes, an extra note of acknowledgment can make your recipients feel more welcome to pursue those alternative means of communication. For example, after an email with some complex wording or nontraditional technical requirements, you might close with something like, “feel free to call me if you want to discuss in more detail.” It shows your investment in the message, and makes people feel more comfortable.
49. Add your recipient address(es) last.
This is less about etiquette directly, and more about guarding yourself from other breaches of etiquette along the way. When most people open up a window to compose a new message, they type the name of their intended recipient first, draft the message, and hit send. Instead, try to get into the habit of filling in that “To” field as the last step before sending. This will dramatically reduce your rate of hitting send prematurely, buying you precious time to review your email and catch any mistakes that might have slipped through your fingers otherwise. While you’re at it, make sure your Undo Send setting is active—and familiarize yourself with how to use it.
50. Double check that name spelling.
There’s no real excuse for misspelling someone’s name in an email. It’s probably in their email address, it’s probably in your contact book, and even if it’s not, it’s in their email signature, their business card, or their LinkedIn profile. Misspelling someone’s name is a sign that you either don’t care about the details of your message, or you were too lazy to double check the spelling. Don’t let this breach of etiquette happen to you.
51. Train your underlings in the art of email.
Finally, if you have employees or underlings, you should take at least partial responsibility in ensuring that they’re following these unwritten rules of email etiquette as well. All it takes is one insensitive email, or a pattern of difficult interactions to fracture a client relationship, but a one-hour workshop is all it takes to correct those behaviors proactively. Talk to your employees about your expectations for their email standards, and when you encounter breaches of etiquette within your team, be sure to politely point them out (along with solutions for how to correct them in the future).
I can’t promise you won’t embarrass yourself even after learning and following these email etiquette rules—in fact, I guarantee you’ll embarrass yourself at some point in the future. After all, you’re only human (well, unless you’re a Google robot indexing this page right now). But keeping these rules top of mind and doing your best to adhere to those “golden principles” I listed earlier will make you more professional, more respectful, and even more productive.
If you’re interested in pushing the limits of your own email productivity even further, you’ll need a tool to help you do it. It’s hard to evaluate your own email productivity independently and objectively, which is why EmailAnalytics is so helpful—it’s an all-in-one email analytics tool for Gmail, designed to help you measure and track metrics like your email response times, how long it takes you to write email, and who your top senders and recipients are. Sign up for free today, and take control of your email habits!
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics, and co-host of the podcast The Entrepreneur Cast.