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email etiquette

Posted 16 July 2007

For most people e-mail is the most important Internet application. The advantages of fast and cheap messenging makes it the medium of choice for getting your message across. It is also the most misused and misunderstood mediums of communicating.

Most email problems come from sender misunderstanding how email works and the context in which they are sending. The context is critical as you can give the wrong impression with the wrong salutation or subject line.

E-mail lends itself to a casual and concise form. As Email is a conversational medium, don’t write novels and don’t get too formal. Be brief, casual and try to keep it friendly, or at least polite.

Remember that email is also a permanent medium. Somewhere, someone probably has a copy. Never write anything that you wouldn't want to see next to your picture on the seven o'clock news.

Does this email need to be sent?

Let's face it, we're drowning in email. Some of it is spam, some of it is silly jokes and one in a hundred is actually useful. If it isn't relevant to the recipient do them a favour don't send it.

Urban myths and false virus warnings irritate busy people and make you look silly. Check any stories and warnings before you pass them on. Do an Internet search or visit the excellent Urban Legends Reference Page.

Don't spam your address book

Unless there's a good reason, don't send an email to everybody in your address book. Remember to only send a message to people that matter.

You also need to be careful of disclosing people's email addresses. If you are sending to a lot of people, use the blind carbon copy, or BCC, function. This hides everybody's addresses.

Replying to emails

Another problem with spamming is "reply all" function. This means everyone who recieved the original gets a copy of the reply. Don't do it unless it's relevant to everybody who got the original.

Addressing email

Context is important with email. How you open and sign off an email to your friends will be different to a job application. Given the casual nature of email, the most common salutations and sign-offs are "dear john" and "regards". If in doubt, always choose the more formal option.

If you are responding to an email, a clue is to use the same form the sender uses. Although new users tend to be more formal since they are finding their way.

The important thing is not to be too cute or intimate. Save that for your nearest and dearest.


Keep your attachments to a reasonable size. Large attachments can take ages to download and can completely foul up the recipient’s inbox. Generally anything over 1Mb should be eyed with suspicion.

It is possible to reduce the size of attachments by compressing files. Windows XP, Vista and Mac OSX have built in functions to reduce the size of the files.

Make sure your attachments are readable. The receiver has to have a program that can read your attachments. If they don't, they will get an error message or gobbeldy gook.

Subject lines

Subject lines make or break an email. Busy people use the subject line to decide what is relevant. If your subject doesn't grab their attention, it may not get read.

Put a relevant and short subject line on your mail. You don’t want people to think your mail is spam so be careful about Don’t send messages with blank subjects, these look like viruses.

Think before you send

Use the send all feature sparingly. Do you want everyone in your (or the company’s) address book to read what you are about to send? Many people don’t need or want your mail.

Take a deep breath before sending or responding to an angry e-mail. It’s often best to save it in your drafts folder overnight and read it again in the morning. Many people have regretted an e-mail dashed off in anger.

Not everybody has your sense of humour. Think about it before you pass on a joke to everybody in your address book. People lose jobs because of this mistake.

Avoid capitals

Typing in capital letters is the same as shouting. Only type words in capitals for emphasis and then only sparingly. Overusing capitals makes you look unhinged and people will avoid you and your emails.


Don’t assume mail is instantaneous. It can take hours or even days to be delivered. Even then, the recipient may not be at their computer when it arrives.

Don’t assume the recipient is chained to their desk. An e-mail invitation to a meeting in an hour or to dinner tonight may not get read for a few days. If you need them urgently, phone or instant message them.

A guaranteed way to irritate business people is to send an urgent message demanding a response at 5pm on a Friday before a long weekend. Don't do it unless your relationship is already on the rocks.

What is in your mail

Try to send your mail in plain text or HTML. Rich Text and MS Word mail formats may not work on the recipient’s computer. They can also spread viruses.

Be careful with jokes, sarcasm and wry comments. Humour often doesn’t work in email and can offend people. Be friendly, but unless you know the recipient well don’t too jokey.

Run a spell checker before sending your mail, but don’t criticise other’s spelling. E-mail is an informal medium that works best when kept casual and friendly. You will irritate people with nit-picking, particularly when American English is involved.

Make sure the other person can understand you. IMHO using abbreviations and emoticons only works when the other people know you are talking about.

Don't be too cute

Cutesy emails are fine between friends, but bouncing balls, dancing girls and flying acrobats irritate a lot of heavy email users. In the worst case they sent virus and spyware checkers into a frenzy. Keep emails as plain and simple as possible.


Be careful about what you discuss. E-mail is not private and it could go anywhere on its way to the sender. If you wouldn’t want to see it on the evening news then don’t write it.

Similarly, you need to be cautious with sending confidential business and personal information over email. E-mail gets stored all over the place, particularly on corporate servers. Don’t assume that anything you have deleted has gone for good.

At work, avoid making disparaging remarks about other staff, bosses and clients. The corporate world is full of wrecked careers and law suits as result of inappropriate comments found in the email archives.

Be careful attacheing documents as they often contain previous edits or comments that can be read. This is particularly true with Microsoft Word.

Error Messages

If the mail comes back with an error, read the message. While the messages may be cryptic it will usually tell you why the mail was rejected. Don’t assume your colleague has died or been sacked just because his mailbox is full.

Set your email up correctly

Get your name right. Mail from Username isn’t a good look. Many people won’t open mail from names they don’t recognise.

Make sure your return address works, that is the email address that appears on your email is the address you recieve mail on. It is an irritant to reply to an address that bounces.

E-mail is one of the most basic and useful Internet tools. Getting it right makes it even more effective. Keep it simple, keep it cheerful and make sure the other person can read it without becoming upset.

Originally posted 1 August, 2002.

PC Rescue Pty Ltd
Suite 236, 4 Young Street Neutral Bay NSW 2089
ABN 082 635 765
ŠTechnology Publishing Australia, 2008



PC Rescue Pty Ltd
Suite 236, 4 Young Street Neutral Bay NSW 2089
©Technology Publishing Australia, 2008