Email: how to be polite and efficient

Email is an old platform, but it still represents the cornerstone of most of our work online. Surprisingly, many people seem to be using email poorly. Here are a few basic rules to keep us productive.

  • Long emails are inefficient because people do not read them.
  • Angry emails should be used with care as they can have devastating effects on the recipients. Long angry emails are almost never a good idea.
  • Passive-aggressive emails are just as dangerous as angry emails.
  • The object of an email should reflect its content. Most importantly, it needs to give the recipient a reason to read it.
  • Formalities (“Dear Sir, (…) Sincerely yours”) only make your emails longer and less efficient. Long signatures at the end of your email are also extraneous
  • Bandwidth is cheap and documents such as Word or PDF are already compressed. Putting them into compressed archives (zip or RAR) is inefficient. If you put documents into archives to “pass the corporate anti-viral firewall”, you are telling the world that you have an idiotic security setup.
  • We have Internet protocols to reasonably ensure email delivery without adding to the cognitive load of the human users. Unsolicited automated emails are spam that burdens our lives. Automated emails are spam unless they were solicited. It is that simple. So your “I am away” or “I got your email” emails are spam.
  • It is ok to follow-up with someone if you were expecting an answer. However, to require an immediate answer of the type “I got your email” from co-workers and professionals you interact with is abusive and impolite. Most people are busy with tasks besides email and if you expect them to put everything they are doing aside every time you are sending an email, then they are basically “on call” for you. Having someone “on call” is a luxury. Some people are indeed on call (e.g., tech support, emergency specialists, and so on) but they represent a minority and they should probably not use email in any case.

More reading: How to write me an email (and get a response) by Julian Togelius

Published by

Daniel Lemire

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

2 thoughts on “Email: how to be polite and efficient”

  1. In today’s business world, email is used for
    very different workflows. In case of support issues, an immedite response is required.

    Sometimes I need to check that certain email was answered and end up opening JIRA ticket to track. long emails are fine as long as each person is adding value. At some point email starts to look as stackoverflow thread and you’d want someone to moderate answers.

    You were describig a generic email etiquitte which is fine but a thin facade.

    I think email as a protocol did not evolve to support what people are using it for.

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