As a memory jog, here again are my 4 rules (guidelines) of business email etiquette:
- Be Polite
- Be Professional
- Be Clear
- Follow up! (which is an outcome, really, of the first three)
When I wrote about the first rule of business email – Be Polite – I suggested that you avoid email wars by requesting use of a different communication channel (phone call, face-to-face meeting, facilitated meeting, water pistols at midnight, whatever). But if you absolutely, have to respond by email, please, please remember that you are responding to a human being, not a machine. Most human beings these days – at least the ones I know – are doing the best they can while facing tremendous personal and/or professional challenges. So please remember that.
And if you can’t remember that (really? It’s so hard?), then remember that nasty-grams can live forever on someone’s hard disk drive. So be neutral, be sensitive, be smart and above all, be professional.
And that is our second rule of business email – Be Professional.
Email gurus Silberman and Johnson both remind us to watch the tone of our emails. Tone is a tricky thing. But believe it or not, it’s easier to moderate the tone of a written communication than it is sometimes to moderate the tone of our voice. (You can test this next time your cube neighbor douses you with a water pistol – how high and loud is your voice as you supposedly laugh it off?)
To moderate the tone of your emails, choose neutral words in place of more highly charged words. For example, refer to “status,” “open issues,” and “concerns,” not “debacles,” “problems,” or “mistakes.” While you might consider a shifting deadline to be an “issue,” it’s probably better not to refer to it as “missed” or “failed,” unless those words are used officially by your company or are generated by a software application – and you have your attorney sitting right next to you (holding a water pistol). People do take these labels personally, and you don’t want wade into an inter-departmental (or inter-company) conflict unnecessarily.
Pushing into controversy myself a bit here (cue toe-in-water image), I’ll say that part of being professional is being sensitive to the person who was concerned enough about a topic to actually send you an email, especially if that someone is lower on the food chain than you. Being tough or clever or “above the fray” doesn’t always win the day; being appreciative and helpful can have more lasting effects (and remember, the email sender might not always be lower on the food chain).
(Note that I am not going to use the American idiom about catching flies with honey here, because, well, it’s gross and, besides, I’ve already used the term “food chain.”)
You know this, because you know it’s true in “real life,” too. I was reminded of this recently when I attended an evening public meeting in my community. Four professionals had formed a panel discussion on a specific topic. (I’ll be neutral here and not name the topic.) Toward the end of the evening, a woman in the audience stood up and asked specifically for help for her child. She was obviously emotional (though not overly so) but very sincere in her request. Not one of the panel members responded. Yes, you read that correctly, not even one.
Finally (to the relief of everyone), another professional in the audience stood up and offered to talk with her after the meeting. (At the same time, he acknowledged that he wasn’t sure that he was the best person to help her.)
How hard was that? Which one of the six people involved in this situation was the most professional, in your opinion?
OK, now I’ll take my toe out of the water, foot out of my mouth, water pistol away from my head, whatever, and talk about one last pet peeve about professionalism in business email. And that has to do with loooooooong email chains – the kind that cross weeks and even months on the calendar – or emails with multiple or hefty attachments. For the love of Mike, people, keep the context but ditch the heft! Mike, by the way, is the poor IT guy responsible for your company’s overtaxed email server.
So the last sub-rule is about professionalism when responding to a business email that’s been circulated through half the world: Be smart. Before you hit Reply All, make sure that all of the right people are on the distribution list; then delete and summarize any of the simple intervening replies (say “the following people on the distribution list have already agreed”; then list them) and keep the original email as close on the page to your response as possible. Believe me, people will thank you (including Mike).
And I will thank you to keep reading my blogs on email etiquette (smooth, eh?). Next topic is business email Rule #3 – Be Clear.