e-mail etiquette

Tips & Hints

Originally posted 1 August, 2002. Revised 30 August, 2005.

E-mail is fast, cheap and probably the most important Internet application. It’s also the one we mistreat the most.

E-mail is the most important tool the Internet has. So having your inbox clogged with rubbish can be very irritating. Often the cause lies with people not realising the limitations of e-mail.

There are some basic rules to not irritating people with your emails.

Don’t pester your colleagues, friends and relatives.

Don’t send urban myths and false virus warnings. Check any stories and warnings before you pass them on. Good reference sites include Urban Legends and About.com's Hoax Encyclopedia.

A similar rule applies to jokes. Not everybody shares your sense of humour and not everybody has time for jokes. Only send them to people who genuinely want them.


Keep your attachments to a reasonable size. Learn to scan the baby photos in at less than 7200dpi with full colour. Large attachments can take ages to download and can completely foul up the recipient’s inbox.

Make sure your attachments are readable. The receiver has to have a program that can read your attachments. If you are zipping them, make sure the recipient has an unzip program as well. If in doubt, ask them.


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

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. It is an irritant to reply to an address that bounces.

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 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.

General principles

Never respond to spam in any way or form. Don’t reply, don’t look at the sites they advertise, and never ask the sender to take you off their mailing list.

Typing in capital letters is the same as shouting. Only use the caps lock key when you want to indicate you’re angry or excited. Don’t overuse capitals.

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.

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.

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.

What is in your mail

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

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

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.

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.


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.

E-mail gets stored all over the place, particularly on corporate servers. Don’t assume that anything you have deleted has gone for good.

Edited documents often contain previous edits or comments that can be read. Be careful when sending sensitive documents as attachments as earlier versions can often be recovered from the attachment. This is particularly true with Microsoft Word.

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 getting upset.

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