Communicating Emotion in Email & Email Etiquette

Last week I had to write an email on a serious matter to one of the chief executives of our company. You know, writing such crisp and serious emails takes a lot of time and effort. It was a pain, but worth taking.

I spent more than 4 hours and wrote a lengthy email. After careful review I just deleted it, because it was very exhaustive. Next day morning I woke up very fresh and in good mood. I wrote just 2 sentences which actually conveyed more than I had written the other night!

Here is my effort to put together some thoughts on points to be considered while writing serious and sensitive emails. Hope this is useful.

We know that email is a powerful and convenient medium for communication. But it lacks cues like facial expression, body language and tone of voice. So email cannot adequately convey or interpret emotion. That makes it difficult for the recipients to decode meaning well. Since email lacks the ability to develop personal rapport, it makes relationships fragile in the face of conflict.

Email senders overestimate their ability to communicate feelings and email recipients overestimate their ability to correctly decode those feelings! One reason is that people are egocentric. They assume others experience the same way they do. To avoid miscommunication, emailers need to look at what they write from the recipient’s perspective. Read the email aloud in the opposite way you intend, whether serious or sarcastic. If the email makes sense either way, revise it.

Don’t rely heavily on email. Emails can be ambiguous. So criticism, subtle intentions and emotions are better carried over the phone. People are much less likely to prejudge after communicating by phone than they are after receiving an email.

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Email tends to be short and to the point. Also quick replies and quick decisions are very welcomed by senior management. So people tend to reply or forward quickly without thinking the implications of the decision they just made. Sometimes the email may get in to the hands of someone who should not be seeing it at all. This happens because the feeling of urgency is getting attached to the emails and not having time to read it completely.

Written below are some of the general email etiquette I suggest in professional communication.

  1. To avoid miscommunication, emailers need to look at what they write from the recipient’s perspective. Read the email aloud in the opposite way you intend, whether serious or sarcastic. If the email makes sense either way, revise it.
  2. When writing new emails, do not type the TO or CC addresses at first. Enter the subject, write and review the email content, attach any document that is referred in the email and only when you are ready to send the email, type the TO and CC addresses. When writing serious and sensitive replies to emails by clicking Reply or Reply All buttons, it is better to delete the TO and CC email addresses. Add it later when you are ready to send it. This avoids accidentally clicking the send button or using shortcut keys for sending the email. For example, in Microsoft Outlook, CTRl+S saves the email as draft while ALT+S sends the email. Both CTRL and ALT are very near in most of the keyboards!
  3. Subject or title of the email is mandatory. The subject should clearly indicate the purpose of the email. Use 50-60 characters for the subject. Senior executives and busy business men see the subject first and accordingly decide to open the email. For example, ‘Marketing Analytics Application Migration Plan’ is a better subject than ‘Plan’.
  4. Write a salutation (like Hi, Hello) for each new subject email. However, if you exchange several emails over the same topic, it is not necessary to include a salutation because it is as though you are carrying on a conversation. When we carry on conversations, we do not say hello each time we speak.
  5. Do not use BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) option for officially copying someone in the email, use CC (Carbon Copy) option instead.
  6. Sometimes people use BCC option to let someone else know without the recipient’s knowledge that you are writing this specific email. I would not recommend this. One reason being the BCC’ed person can actually reply to the email, while the initial recipient was not aware of this. This will create problems in relationships. I prefer sending the email to the recipient and then forwarding to whomever I want to let know about this, with a FYI (for your information) note.
  7. If you need to send an invitation or similar emails to a group, and do not want the recipients to know each other, use BCC option.
  8. Do not use BCC option just to avoid unwanted Reply All option. In case you are sending to many people and would like to avoid Reply All, write clearly in the beginning of the email to avoid Reply All and send directly to you.
  9. Carefully select who should be in the TO and CC fields. if you need someone to take an action on this email, that person should be in the TO field. Others who are just kept in the loop should be in the CC. When replying to everyone, make necessary changes to the TO and CC accordingly.
  10. Avoid chat language like Neways, b4, kewl, tc, etc. in business emails. Do not use sentences like I dunno wat 2 do, 2Ht2Hndl (Too hot to handle) smiling
  11. Email client applications like Microsoft Outlook provides preview feature, which displays first a few characters of the email in the listing page (inbox). If the opening sentence can get the attention of the senior executive, he will immediately open it.
  12. If you are sending status report of a project as attachment to senior management, and would like to highlight an important risk item or an achievement, briefly write about it in the email also. This attracts senior management’s attention in the email preview itself. Do not expect him to open your email, open the attachment, scroll down and see if there are any risks!
  13. Write emails in the language understood by the recipient. The structure, words and size of the email have to be different when writing to an ordinary person, Senior Manager, Vice president or Chief Executive. Use simple words, do not make the recipient to use dictionary!
  14. If you are forwarding a long chain email to a senior executive, do not expect him to go through the whole email trail bottom-to-top to understand the context. Instead, write a brief summary to set the context. If you are writing to a business man use his language, and when writing to a technical manager convey the same matter in his technical terms.
  15. It is a good idea to have separate signature for New Emails and Replies. You can put your detailed signature in the new email you create. I have seen people writing even punch lines or quoting Bhagavad Gita, Bible or Khoran in their signatures. It is not professional communication. In email replies, you do not need to put your full signature.
  16. Keep your signatures simple. Do not use very flashy, moving and colorful signatures. Do not use special symbol fonts in signature. For example, the telephone symbol, email symbol, etc. will not display correctly if the recipient does not have the font or if the email is viewed as text-only email.
  17. Do not use fancy fonts in professional emails! Some fancy fonts are difficult to read or print. Also, the recipient need not have the same fancy font you sued for composing the email. Some of the standard fonts for business communication are Arial, Verdana, Book Antiqua, Tahoma and Courier New. Use only one font in an email. It is ok to use a different but blending font for signatures.
  18. You need not intend the salutation, paragraphs and signing off with spaces or tabs. Start all of them in the first column itself.
  19. Avoid using third party provided emoticons like hotbar.com in official emails. if necessary, use text based emoticons like 🙂 to indicate humour or 🙁 for sad.
  20. If you are using any abbreviations, make sure that the recipient also understand the same. For example, ASAP (as early as possible) may be a commonly used and understood abbreviation, but AWOD (AWay On Duty) is not used across organizations. Sometimes, the same abbreviation has conflicting meanings! For example, one of my friend sent me a reply, WC. I thought that she mentioned Will Check, but actually it was Who Cares! big grin
  21. Write one email per theme. Do not include various unrelated topics in the same email even if you are sending it to the same group. Stay focused.
  22. Set the context of the email first and keep the flow between paragraphs. Do not juggle between different topics and confuse the recipient.
  23. Write one paragraph for each point. This makes reading, understanding and replying to the email very easy. Recipients tend to miss or ignore some points if the email is cluttered.
  24. Regards, Thanks and Thanks & Regards are the commonly used for closing of professional emails. Best Regards and Warm Regards are also used. I have seen usage of Cheers as closing tag. Cheers is ok to use within your own team. But make sure that you do not use the default cheers closing when signing off a sad message!
  25. When writing emails to international recipients, be considerate and avoid misinterpretation of dates by listing dates including the spelled out month like 27-Jan-1998 or 27 January 1997. Also when scheduling meetings, use the exact time zone also, like 27 May 2006 10:00AM IST, to avoid further confusion.
  26. Never assume your e-mail messages are private nor that they can be read by only yourself or the recipient.
  27. Use capitalization and punctuation in the same way that you would in any other document.
  28. Do not use CAPITALS. Capital letters in emails indicate shouting at someone! Use initial capital for the subject.
  29. Do not over-use jargons to show your knowledge!
  30. Use active sentences instead of passive.
  31. When sending attachments, make sure the recipient also is aware of which application or version to use. For example, if you are sending a Visio 2003 document and the recipient may have only Visio 2000 version, it may be difficult to open it.
  32. Use HTML or Rich Text formatting for business email, if you are sure that the recipient’s email software supports it. All of the latest email software and web emails like Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail support these formats. You can also use other formatting options such as bold, italics and underline in the email. Email clients like Microsoft Outlook uses MIME Multipart/Related Content-type to encapsulate both HTML and Text versions of the email content and displays according to the recipient’s settings.
  33. If you have images as part of the email, configure your email client to send the image also in the email (not just the URL of the image). Some of the business users may not have Internet connectivity to automatically download the image from the URL.
  34. When replying, answer all questions and preempt further questions. There is a tendency of skipping some of the points and answering only your confident points!
  35. Check grammar and spelling before sending using the feature provided in the email clients.
  36. Do not overuse the high priority and privacy options of email. Use low priority for your general forwards and jokes. Oops, you are not supposed to use official email infrastructure for jokes and forwards!
  37. Do not overuse Reply All option. Think twice before sending an email to all. Do all of the recipients care about your reply or should they be aware of your reply? If not, do not send to everyone.
  38. Do not make the default option as request delivery receipt and read receipt. First, if the email is not delivered, you will anyway receive a notification from the SMTP server, so delivery receipt does not do any better. Second, even when the email is previewed or just displayed in the recepient’s screen, the read receipt is sent. That is, read receipt does not guarantee that the email is read by the recipient. Also, not all email servers support this feature. After all, email client software like Microsoft Outlook have options to not to send any delivery receipt or read receipt even if it is requested by the sender!
  39. There is a trend to avoid repeatedly using the pronoun I as it indicates self-centric or egoistic personality. But this trend ends up in not using I and using passive sentences which makes it difficult to understand the email. For example, one of my managers often write like Have reviewed the document or Having reviewed the document,…. I think, he could simply say I reviewed the document. I don’t see any need for using past participle form of the verb where the simple past form of the verb would simply says it all!
  40. Sometimes, you may need to acknowledge an email, just by writing great!, cool!, ok, approved, etc.. Everyone likes to be acknowledged that the email is read, after all. Just because you want to motivate your subordinates, do not over use great!, cool!, wonderful, etc. for doing a very simple job which they have been doing for years! This might indicate a sarcastic meaning too. Just an ok or thanks will suffice in such a scenario.

This summarizes my thoughts for the day! Do feel free to add your tips as comments on this entry.

9 Comments

  1. Exactly….
    I find myself in this situatuion many time whenever i have to reply any offical mail or personal mail i have to think a lot and it gets exhausted.i spoil my 3-4 hrs before replying nw i m sure that this article will help me to come out from this situations.after reading this article I felt that i not the single person who feel helpless in such situations…

  2. Very interesting write up! Very relevant too in these days when e mails are the chief means of communication. I have also noticed that the linguistic choice one makes in terms of vocabulary can add to or distort the meaning, not to mention that it can also lead to ambiguity. So one has to be careful to use words with the right connotation.

  3. Include things in the subject to indicate the purpose, such as “action required” or “information only.” This helps in priortizing e-mails received.

    Never communicate emotion in e-mail. E-mail is good for information exchange, not relationship building. If you are angry or upset, talk to the person. If you feel adrenaline when you hit send – you probably just sent something you should not have sent!

  4. Excellent tips, Shri Pillai. I not only learned new ones but also send same to some other lists as must read item.
    Thanks & regards
    Ravi(ex- Nair Tharavadu group)

  5. Nice one..
    Well I can add some more..
    1. Use numbering when you have a list of items to send
    2. Make use of bold, italics for heading of a paragraph.
    3. Make use of spell check feature. If not available in your mail client, use MS Word for typing the mails and then paste it to your mail client.
    4. When you want to give a comment, reply to the mail by saying “see my comments below” and add comments in the sender’s mail. Also add your name in [] before the comment.
    This will keep the length of conversation short and make it to the point.

  6. interesting writeup, sree! i forwarded to my friends. hey, good to see you back in active blogging. tell me onething, what is the serious matter you wrote to the senior executives? – starting a new center in kochi or expansion in trivandrum? something different? 🙂

  7. good post..
    we can borrow something from creative writing as well
    – edit your email before sending it out. even follow the rule of second draft = first draft – 10% for making it brief.
    – use simple words
    – use active voice instead of making general passive statements which leaves doubt about who will do it
    – consider your audience. for example, we have some body in our client senior management known as “one page mike” – he needs presentations condensed into one page. but there may be “detail persons” also who would like to get into details. so consider whom you are writing for.
    – consider the size of your audience.

    and on and on..:)

  8. interesting writeup…! i think its better to write in notepad first and format it and then send incase it is an important mail.

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