eMail etiquette for a busy age

Taming email is primarily a behavioral problem. If people can be brief, direct, and considerate things will improve.

I’ve shared this list of ideas with groups I’ve managed for the past 10 years. It hasn’t solved the problem – but it has helped. Sharing this list sets expectations clearly and helps people change their behavior.

This is not an exhaustive list; please feel free to ad your own peeves and ideas for reducing clutter in the in-box. Also – feel free to call me on my lapses.

Here are the rules – more detail is below the fold.


* Be brief – really
* Attachments, use sparingly

* Include clues in the subject field
* Make the “To” field mean something
* Be up front with requests

* FYI should really be NTK (Need to Know not Nice to Know)

* The Round Trip Rule
* Reply All is a Dangerous Weapon – Don’t Shoot Yourself
* When it’s urgent…
* Don’t Take It Personally
* When upset – use your toes not your fingers’
* Don’t argue with a jerk in public – most people can’t tell the difference
* How to nag
* Jokes – The Laugh Out Loud Rule
* Minor issues

Be brief – really

One word is better than two and one sentence is better than two. Brevity is an act of consideration not rudeness. People who have a habit of sending long emails get put in the “read later “ folder (also see “Attachments – Use Sparingly”).

Attachments, use sparingly

An attachment virtually guarantees that an email won’t be opened right away. I’m usually rushed when cruising email and attachments get saved for when I have time (e.g. muuuuch later). They are also difficult to open on a Blackberry and there are whole days when that is my only access to email.

Far better to summarize the key findings of a document in the email itself – see “Be brief”. Only include attachments when it is absolutely necessary that I have the original file. It’s okay to ask if I want the original if you are not sure. It’s more likely to be read once I’m anticipating it.

Include clues in the “Subject” field

Action Required, Please Respond by xx/xx/xx, As Requested, Your Thoughts Please. etc…. These will help your recipient prioritize as they scan incoming messages.

FYI is a special case – see below.

Feel free to change the title in a response or forward if it will clarify your expectations for the recipient(s)

Make the “To” field mean something

If my name is in the To field I should have an action item or it should be something that needs my attention. This applies to new mails, forwards and responses. Just hitting Reply All and not moving names around as appropriate is sloppy.

Please use cc: if possible for FYI emails or you won’t CYA. Since many people also filter their cc’s to a separate folder it is also considerate.

Use bcc with caution, it can be seen as sneaky. The best use of it is for sending jokes – see below.

Be up front with requests

Flag action items by the person’s name at the start of the memo (e.g. Joe I need you to review this by x). That way people don’t have to wade through 4 pages of your brilliant prose to find out what you want from them.

FYI should really be NTK (Need to Know not Nice to Know)

If it is an FYI I had better really need to know it to do my job, most of us don’t have time for “nice to knows.” If you are not sure go ahead and send it and ask if it is the kind of thing I’d like to see.

The Round Trip Rule

If an email exchange makes more than one round trip stop and have a conversation. Your issue will get resolved quicker and more effectively.

Reply All is a Dangerous Weapon – Don’t Shoot Yourself

Before you hit the “Reply All” button be sure everyone needs to see your reply.

If someone is organizing a meeting reply only to them. If there is a problem the organizer will let me know, otherwise I’ll look forward to seeing you at the meeting.

When it’s urgent…

It’s OK to send me an email and leave me a voice mail. Label your message correctly (see above) and keep it brief (see above) and I’ll get to it as quickly as I can. Regarding voice mails, see “be brief” above. Use your alert mark for truly urgent items. Don’t cry wolf.

Don’t Take It Personally

98% of emotional communication is non-verbal. It is too easy to take something in an email totally out of context – because there is no emotional context. Assume the best of others and it will keep your blood pressure down. When this proves impossible see the next suggestion.

When upset – use your toes not your fingers

Walking over to talk with someone will calm you down and it will probably resolve the issue quicker. If you must respond via email, wait until morning, or send it to yourself and sit on it for a day. You’ll be glad you did (and so will your recipients).

Writing an email you never intend to send can be therapeutic – and cheaper than a shrink. So go ahead and pen that screed if it will make you feel better – just do it in Word so you don’t accidentally hit send.

Don’t argue with a jerk in public – most people can’t tell the difference

If you are working out an issue with a co-worker (or just having a good old flame war) get to a point where you have resolved it or you really need my input before you copy me on it. If you are having a flame war with me lets get it off line and sit down to talk about it (see “When upset…”)

How to nag

Don’t assume that just because you have sent it that I have read it.

If I have not responded do not send another email, leave me a voice mail saying you need a response and identifying the email. But – don’t clog my voice mail box saying you are sending me an email, it is repetitively redundant and says the same thing over and over again….unless it is urgent.

The best way to avoid this fate is to follow the suggestions on addressing and titling your emails above.

Jokes – The Laugh Out Loud Rule

I enjoy a good laugh. But laugh is the operative word. A joke should make you laugh out loud before you forward it. A grin, giggle or smile does not qualify as worthy of junking up someone else’s mailbox.

Be careful with your business email and jokes. From your business email only forward jokes you would send to your mother (those of you with that “kind” of mother substitute Mother Teresa). Better yet, send them all from a personal email address. Gmail, Yahoo etc offer email that is free, so you have no excuse. People have lost jobs over this issue.

If you send a joke to a large list use the bcc field for all the addresses. Even if your joke is tame one of the recipients may choose to reply to the whole list with something truly tasteless (this happened a “friend” of mine). They can’t do this if it is in bcc.

Minor issues

Save anything that is important to you and back up regularly. Don’t assume others will do this for you.

Please trash the headers from previous mails, particularly when the recipient list is long.