4 Rules for Business Email – Rule #1

Yes, email is still around, and it is still the main form of official communication between business professionals. I realize that rules on email etiquette have been around as long as email has. Email etiquette guru Lindsay Silberman (author of several Email… manuals) has 25 rules for you to follow, and Dave Johnson of MoneyWatch has 9 “keys” for your pocket. But I think I can easily boil those down a bit more.

To start, we should all make one giant assumption in our 21rst century lives: Nothing you send in email will ever die. (This is borrowed from AIIM’s mantra: Nothing on the Internet ever dies.) Emails can be copied, pasted, forwarded, saved and (Hello, NSA!) archived in large data centers somewhere. I am not saying that you should abandon your free-speech rights at the entrance to the corporate campus, just apply your good-sense filters and “look both ways” before you hit Send.

So really there is one overarching rule here: Don’t be stupid. Goes without saying that in the professional business world, you shouldn’t send obscene, rude, sexist, bigoted or otherwise offensive emails (nothing you wouldn’t want your grandmother or grandchild to see). So I think we can explore email etiquette by looking at only 4 rules – well, guidelines really:


  1. Be Polite
  2. Be Professional
  3. Be Clear
  4. Follow up! (which is an outcome, really, of the first three)

In this blog we’ll explore the first rule (guideline) and what it means – Rule One: Be Polite

Be Polite – I know this sounds as though I have turned in to my mother, and oddly, I found myself asking my 87-year-old mother the other night if she had been “polite” during a recent dinner at a neighbor’s home when she didn’t like the food. (The reasons why I asked this are deep and many, but I won’t overshare here.)

Translation to business email:  Respond politely to whatever is put in front of you, even if you don’t like it and, most especially, even if you don’t like the person who put it there. The key here is to respoooooond, even if you simply say, “Thank you for your email. I’m sorry, but I am swamped right now. I’ll respond by noon tomorrow.” In fact, you can even set this message as an automatic response (using your email tool’s out-of-office feature) on days when you need some uninterrupted time at your real job – say, planning your next pirate-ship takeover. It will buy you some work time now – and some think time later. (Please don’t overuse this tip. And please do what you have promised to do – and follow-up!)

The main idea here is to say something that indicates you received the email (and thus convey to the sender that the email is not lost in the ozone somewhere). So thank the communicator, and/or acknowledge the meeting or clarification, and/or respond to the request. It doesn’t take most of us long to type, “Got it! Thanks.” Or “Thanks. I’ll be there.” Or “Thanks. I’ll discuss this with the team, and get back to you on N-day.” (Where N=the day you follow-up. More on follow-up with Rule 4, topic of a future blog.)

If the email you’ve received is itself impolite or contains provocative or otherwise unpalatable notions, rather than start an email war with cannons blaring, use your email response to set up another communication channel. You can always write, “May we talk offline about this?” to set up anything from a hallway conversation to a conference call. Or – and here’s a unique idea – take the initiative and pick up the phone to call the sender. (If it makes you feel better, you can throw in a pirate’s “Aaaaargh” somewhere in the conversation…see if they notice.)

One last note: It goes without saying here (again!) that you don’t always have to respond to every email. For instance, you do not have to respond to automated emails, or all-hands emails, or a similar widely distributed email. Use your good judgment (or your mother’s good judgment, whichever best applies).

Next blog – Rule #2 – Be Professional

2 thoughts on “4 Rules for Business Email – Rule #1

  • Saw your post on Linkedin today and read this article. I agree with you and I think I can distill it into a couple of words, professionalism and courtesy.

    On the topic of following up, recently I’ve been witness to what I consider a new phenomenon. That is the practice of “ghosting” has apparently moved from the dating world into the business world. This is the practice of completely ignoring someone when no longer convenient. I’m talking about total radio silence. Emails are received and opened but no reply, phone calls are screened.

    I can think of number of reasons for this and some may sound biased.

    1) People are simply too busy, to the point now that little effort is expended even when only a little is required.
    2) Common courtesy is not a common thing anymore.
    3) A growing number younger generation of business professionals are socially awkward.
    4) More and more people are simply not interested if it doesn’t serve their immediate needs.

    See? I told you it would be biased. Still, I believe in some extent all of this is true.

    All the best, Doug

    • Hi Doug,
      Good to hear from you! Hope you are staying well and enjoying our beautiful spring here in Colorado!

      I agree that “ghosting” is an phenomenon causing consternation in many arenas, email responses being one of them. Honestly, I think we can, in part, thank the recent great recession for that. During that time, at least here in the U.S., the combination of easily accessed technology, desperation, and poor information security/governance enabled spam, email blasts, and canned responses to assault our senses and sympathies and to eat into our daily routines.

      Thus, I think, that ghosting might have, in part, arisen (forgive the pun) from feelings of exhaustion with the constant barrage. (In my mind, it’s sort of like “charity fatigue” – the feeling that one is constantly being asked to give time and treasure to a myriad of causes.)

      Of course, my theory doesn’t explain the rise in popularity of collaborative software like Slack. But perhaps those applications have become popular, in a way, because they are “not email.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s