by Kristin Brighton on August 1, 2021

I don’t know the cause, but since the start of the pandemic, I’ve noticed an overall decline in general email etiquette. I’m not sure whether this is the result of our over-reliance on texting and other forms of instant messaging, the struggles of working from the chaos of home at all hours of the day, or strings of Zoom meetings devouring our time, but I’ve observed a recent decline in how people prioritize email writing — and responding. 

I’m not talking about basic, old-school tips such as being clear and concise, taking the time to review what you write before hitting send, having a clear subject line with strong keywords, or overusing the “reply all” button. While those tips are all important, and their failure can be annoying and possibly downright damaging, those things are all well covered in many other blogs and videos.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how as a society we need to remind ourselves about civility and professionalism from time to time. In this spirit, I’ve come up with these five gentle reminders to keep in mind if you want to do business successfully through email:   

  1. Reply in a reasonable amount of time. If you’re on vacation or tied up in meetings and won’t be able to respond in a typical length of time, please turn on your vacation responder so the other party doesn’t have to wonder if their message got accidently lost, deleted, forgotten or mislabeled as spam.

    If you don’t have time to respond to email within 24 hours, or don’t have an answer for the person, please forward the message to a colleague who can help and copy the sender so they know you asked someone else to reply. Or, quickly reply that you’ll need a few days to get back to them. Acknowledging the message signifies it was received and lets the other person know they aren’t waiting for a reply that might not ever come.
  2. Match the sender’s tone. If someone takes the time to write pleasantries and greetings in a message to you, and you reply with a single phrase or short answer, it makes it seem as if you’re angry (when most likely you’re just in a hurry). Even when the answer is a simple “yes,” I always suggest that you match the sender’s level of politeness — such as if you were passing someone on the sidewalk and exchanging pleasantries. Short, curt replies can be interpreted as rude. Simply adding a polite pleasantry such as “Thanks!” or “Have a great weekend!” can make a world of difference.
  3. Be considerate enough to clearly say no. If you’ve received a request from someone you have a professional connection with, and your answer to the request is “no,” rather than simply ignoring or deleting the message, reply with a polite decline. Failing to respond leaves the sender hanging and uncertain whether the initial inquiry was even received. Taking the time to politely communicate that you plan to pass will prevent the sender from having to debate whether or when to follow up with you, creating more time-wasting emails. If your answer is no, then politely respond and move on. 
  4. Sometimes it’s best to take the conversation offline. Everyone is busy, and no one likes to be the bearer of bad news, but if you’ve got negative or complicated information to communicate, sometimes it’s best to pick up the phone (or schedule a video conference) to have a real-time conversation. This also shows the person you respect them enough to tell them the news personally and allows them the opportunity to ask questions and respond. Taking a few minutes to talk one on one can remove doubt, clarify the outcome and make both parties feel better about the circumstances moving forward.

    Given how busy everyone seems to be these days, if you’re afraid to reach out via phone because you’re dreading playing phone tag for the rest of the week, simply email the person and ask to be put on their calendar for a short chat.
  5. Sleep on it. We’ve all received those emails that get our blood boiling. I’ve learned the hard way that its usually best to hold off responding — and perhaps it’s even better to respond by phone or in person, rather than email. There are a lot of unretractable things you won’t dare say to someone’s face that can creep out when you’re pounding out a heated response.  

    Regardless of the situation, everyone benefits from time to cool down and get some perspective, and sometimes it turns out that the problem is just a miscommunication. Don’t fire back a retort you might later regret. If and when you do write back (and don’t forget, you can reply by phone), it’s generally good practice to ask someone you trust to review what you’ve written before you hit send.

    Another good tip for such a situation is to not put the recipient’s name in the “To” box until you’re fully comfortable with what you’ve written. You can leave it blank or put your own name in the box while you’re drafting the reply, just to avoid any accidental sends. Not that I’ve ever done that (wink, wink).

Kristin Brighton is a co-owner of New Boston Creative Group and a 25-year-veteran of marketing communications industry. She’s infamous for mixing metaphors, talking faster than she can write and learning most of the advice presented above the hard way.