Basic email skills

If there is one skill that is needed in a modern office is email. By email, I do not refer to the specific Internet protocol. I refer to the general process of exchanging electronic text online.

We have had thousands of years to learn how to talk to each other. We know how to read each other. Our brains have evolved to cope with these intricate exchanges.

Email is much more difficult. Email is an emerging art that few master.

Here are some basic concepts:

  • Keep your emotions in check. Email does not care how you feel. It takes great care to decipher and communicate emotions accurately online. If you get angry or otherwise preoccupied with the emails themselves, you are doing it wrong. If you want to express your feelings, take a theatre class or create a YouTube channel. Email is not your therapist.
  • Every email you send is public. I would never share without permission a private email, but many others would. In many corporations, all emails are archived and can be reviewed by management. Messages you send through Facebook or Twitter are evidently public.

    When I started blogging, people asked me how I could share with the world my thoughts without care. These same people often did not think twice about sending an ugly email.

    Behave as if everyone is reading your emails and you will be more effective.

  • Debating is usually a waste of your time. There are debating clubs, but none that operate by email. If you want to try to convince people of the error of their ways, write bona fide articles.
  • No mass email. It might be ok to send an email to your tribe (less than twelve people) but any email to a larger group is flat out wrong.

    If you are the recipient of an email sent to a lot of people, please do not hit “reply to all” without due consideration.

  • Short and infrequent. Bombarding someone with emails every day is not going to get you on their Christmas list. Long emails will not be read.
  • Keep your inbox clean. You are simply not supposed to have hundreds of messages in your inbox.
  • Not every email requires an answer. Though there might be social expectations that emails require responses… only send a response if it is genuinely useful. Also, if someone is not responding to your email, they are not “ignoring” you.
  • Not every email requires an immediate response. I have cultivated a habit of delaying my responses. If I have to respond to someone who does not know me well, I will send a quick warning that my response will not be immediate. Sometimes, after waiting a few days, no response is needed anymore. Other times, by waiting a bit, I have given myself time to produce a more thoughtful and engaging reply. It can take me weeks or months to answer some emails: I am not particularly worried about it.

Daniel Lemire, "Basic email skills," in Daniel Lemire's blog, April 27, 2015.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

3 thoughts on “Basic email skills”

  1. Email, is an effective way of communication and I’m glad the days of Forwards are gone, almost. I’ve been using email for the past 18 years and I wish I could say that I have mastered it. But the way we use it at work and personally differs.

    Sure no proper format or guideline are required when you are emailing your friends and family. But in the office, it is implied that you put your emotions aside and say just what you have to say formally.

    But I have noticed that in the past few years, as we all caught the social-twitosphere-facebooking bug, formal emails are no different then an interjection. A lot of times I see emails that resemble my twitter feed.

    Maybe it is because email clients are trying to convert emails into conversations. So it is all too common to get an email in the middle of the night that looks like this:

    From: Big Boss
    Re: Product Brainstorm Meeting.

  2. Interleaving the reply with pertinent quotes of the earlier email is also important. It helps keep the email short as I don’t have to provide context in my own words for each part of my reply and the reader can initially ignore the quote unless they can’t recall the context which they then find close at hand.

    “Don’t top post!” is a common summary of this, but it’s misses out the importance of trimming the quotes. Worst of all is the top-poster that then interleaves comments in the mass of quoted-email upon quoted-email that follows, expecting the readers to scroll down looking for them when, by now, most readers have been trained to stop as soon as the quoting starts.

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