Email has become our default means of business communication but these etiquette rules will makes it better for everyone


How many times have you been searching for an email and found yourself frustrated by how hard it is to find that particular mail you’re looking for?

Part of the problem is that most people are blithely unaware of how useful the subject field is – because when you search for an email, the result is always the subject line.

I can’t tell you how many people send me emails titled “Stuff magazine” which is fairly useless when you’re searching for something specific.

Carefully labelled email subjects are just one of a range of new skills for our digital economy that should be taught in schools, or perhaps a new form of digital finishing school.

I remember being taught in high school how to write a formal letter back when letter writing was still a big deal – and when the difference between “yours sincerely” (if you knew the recipient’s name) and ‘yours faithfully” (if you didn’t) was important.

Email etiquette is certainly not as formal but there are still useful conventions to bear in mind. I’m sure readers of this fine magazine already know these things, but in case you know someone who doesn’t, these are the rules I think most people should know.

I am still amazed at how many people don’t know ALL CAPITALS signifies SHOUTING, for instance.

Similarly, most people seem to have no compunction hitting “reply all” to group emails with needless messages like “thanks for letting me know” or even just “thanks”. Unless its strictly necessary to tell everyone on a list something important, never hit reply all.

If you are emailing a long list of people, use the blind copy (BCC) field. It might not have been the original idea but that’s what it’s now for, saving people from “reply all”.

If you’re going to use a picture email signature, please be aware of two things. Firstly, if you use an image that is designed on a laptop or to be read on its larger screen, it will force the image to display too wide on a smartphone screen and therefore make the text too small to read.

Secondly, include the key contact details – such your phone number, email address or website – in a text format above or below the image. Why? So that if someone wants to quickly call you, they can click on a number. Email signature images look pretty but aren’t actionable.

This is especially true because most of us – who are probably called knowledge workers – read most of our email on our smartphones. That brings certain advantages and just as many challenges.

The biggest of these are emails’ most notorious ailment: attachments. Why do people insist on using attachments, especially for text, when just cutting-and-pasting them into the body of the email is more functional. Why do people send huge image files of several megabytes when they shred data bundles.

Always proofread your own emails, and never send an email in anger. Save it to drafts and reread it in the morning. One technique is to add the email last, but always double check you’ve selected the right person.

You would think it’s obvious, but if it’s a professional email, don’t use personal style or colloquialisms. And never use textspeak like “GR8” or “luv”. Full sentences and full words are the way the English language works.

Finally, no-one every understands sarcasm, innuendo or plain old humour in written text so be careful. And never, ever, never use exclamation marks. Or emoticons. Ever.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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