Email 101: Think before you send

The way you communicate by email speaks volumes about your personality...

Asma Mustafa November 08, 2010

Email is, at times, an irresponsibly-handled medium and many organisations today are grappling with usage of business emails. Email policies often fail to provide a solution to workplace email issues, which can be a problem for the 1.4 billion users of the technology.

One of the issues is overdependency on this medium. Participants at my email etiquette workshops have time and again complained that they receive too many emails. We end up using email to accomplish tasks for which it is completely ineffective. It is only sensible to choose a communication medium which best suits the needs of the task at hand. For example, if you want to correct your subordinate on a mistake, meet him/her instead of sending an email; if you’d like to explain a complicated procedure to someone, demonstrate it; if you’re trying to solve someone’s problem, call them. Knowing how and when to use email sets managers and leaders apart in organisations.

The quantity of emails is also multiplied by the number of times an email is replied to. At my previous workplace we had a rule that if any email continues for more than two email chains, both the sender and recipient should meet each other and discuss the matter. Email is best used for simple and short communication. Longer emails can be drafted when already-discussed matters need to be documented.

The way you communicate by email speaks volumes about your personality. If you are courteous in real life, you’ll be the same when composing emails. Unlike face-to-face communication, where a lot can be conveyed by body language, in emails, tone and inflection are hard to decipher. Words  and phrases which may be appropriate in a face-to-face conversation, such as, “Why did you...” “You must...” and “I don’t understand your...” trigger a defense mechanism in recipients and should be avoided in emails. On the other hand, the same message can have a more poitive impact with the addition of courteous words such as “dear”, “thank you”, “regards” etc.

Attention-seeking behaviour is evident in persistent “reply all” users. Many participants at my workshops have said that when they disseminate information to users, they feel important and useful. However, if the reply is not required by all recipients, it wastes their time and clogs their inbox. The constant “new email” notification acts as a distracter.

Where efficiency is great, it should certainly be paired with effectiveness. Many of you who thrive on speed would recall a message which was intended for Asim Zaheer but was sent to Asif Zaheer. While address books have taken a load off our memory, its usage demands constant vigilance. Similarly, sending out an email with grammatical errors can create an impression of carelessness and irresponsibility. Double checking the address list and running a spell check before sending an email doesn’t consume a lot of time but will surely save you from unnecessary embarrassment.

Effectiveness also needs to be coupled with efficiency. Delaying a response with the intent to revert with complete information can be avoided by simply acknowledging the email. It is okay to write “Thank you for your email. I will get back to you on June, XYZ.” The sooner you reply to an email, the less the clutter in your inbox — allowing you to focus on other tasks. The oftneglected subject line can actually facilitate in getting a timely response if the purpose, along with deadline (if any), is mentioned in crisp and meaningful words.

Like a decent conversation, a well-written email also needs strcture. Greeting the individual and introducing oneself (if needed) in the opening, communicating the purpose along with two to four bullet points in the body of the email, specifying the deadline (if any) along with offering assistance in the closing paragraph has always worked for me. Often we miss out on offering help by not writing statements like “Feel free to contact me for any clarification” or “Do let me know if you need more detail.” This depicts lack of ownership on the part of the sender.

Today, life without email is hard to imagine. However, the presence of one medium should not detract from the rest. What you need to accomplish should always be kept in mind before choosing the medium. Email is as much a projection of your professional image as any other written or verbal presentation and must be handled thoughtfully. Sustainable improvement in your emails is possible only by improving your personality and the way you communicate in general.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2010.

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