So much business communication takes place electronically that people tend to dash off emails without thinking about them. But even with quick messages, it is important to observe some etiquette rules.
“Email is often the first impression that others get of you,” says etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, who has done executive coaching and leadership training programs for various Fortune 500 companies.
Ms. Whitmore believes one thing above all: “Err on the side of being more formal.” When composing an email, she never starts without a salutation. “An email deserves a greeting,” says Ms. Whitmore. “We’ve gotten so lax in the way that we communicate that we’re apt to forget good habits.”
If the recipient is someone Ms. Whitmore has never met before, she’ll likely begin with “Dear.” Generally, though, she will use “Hello.” After that first email exchange, though, Ms. Whitmore takes her cues from the person she is emailing. “If the person says ‘Hi’ to me, I will say ‘Hi’ back,” she says. “I will mirror the person I am emailing.”
Timing is important. “The rule is you should reply to an email within 24 hours,” Ms. Whitmore says. “Even if you don’t have an answer for someone, reply anyway and say ‘Thank you for your email—I’ll get back to you by such and such a date.’ ”
Ms. Whitmore, who has written two books, “Poised for Success” and “Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work,” likes to start the body of her email with a short, thoughtful sentence. “If you haven’t spoken to the person in a while, it’s best to put some little nicety in the front, like ‘Happy New Year’ or ‘I hope you had a great holiday,’” she says.
After that, Ms. Whitmore tries to be as direct and succinct as possible. “I always keep my sentences very short,” says Ms. Whitmore, who is also the founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach in Florida. “People have hundreds of email to answer in a day. The chances that somebody will respond increase when the email is shorter.”
Ms. Whitmore likes to keep her paragraphs short as well. With especially busy people, bullet points are a good idea. “I work with a lot of executives who are very busy, and they just want the facts,” she says. “I almost set it up like a memo so it’s easier to read.”
While it can be easy to fall into a casual tone, especially if you’re tapping out your email on a portable device, Ms. Whitmore cautions against it. “Remember that emails can be forwarded, they can be duplicated,” she says. “Keep emotions out of it, and keep it simple.”
At the same time, Ms. Whitmore is careful not to be come across as curt. “No one can see your facial expressions or hear your tone of voice, so the only way they’re gauging your emotions is the tone that you use in that email,” she says. So, while she tries to keep things short, she also will add words such as “I’m happy to do it” to convey a little warmth.
Some people try to convey emotions in emails with happy or sad faces such as 🙂 or with extra exclamation points. Ms. Whitmore says she does use such measures when she thinks it is appropriate—“but never when I’m trying to make a good first impression,” she says. “If I’ve known the person a long time and we’ve developed a friendship, I find it more appropriate to be less formal. But when in doubt, leave it out.”
“Text speak” is a strict don’t, Ms. Whitmore says. Acronyms such as “lol” “don’t have a place in a business email,” she says. “Even if you’ve just graduated from college and you’re now out in the workforce, remember that a lot of your clients may be baby boomers. It’s important for you to stay professional.”
More people are writing messages in all lowercase letters. Ms. Whitmore likes to reserve that for personal emails.
Make sure nothing is misspelled. “It can reflect poorly on your company if you send a poorly composed email,” Ms. Whitmore says. “People may think, ‘This person handles the balance sheets for my company and he can’t even spell there?’ So read and reread it before sending it.”
Also, be sure to put in a clear subject line at the top—something busy professionals prize. “If you don’t have anything in the subject line at all, you can’t figure out if it’s something you want to open right away,” Ms. Whitmore says.
Signing off carries potential pitfalls as well. “If I don’t know the person well, the safest way to sign off is ‘Best regards,’” Ms. Whitmore says. “Kind regards” and “Warmest regards” convey formality with just a little more affection, she adds. “Best” is commonly used and works for most situations, but if Ms. Whitmore feels a more formal tone is called for, she’ll use “Sincerely,” which she notes is “a little more distant.”
A definite no: “xoxo,” which should only be reserved for best friends or “if I really, really love somebody,” Ms. Whitmore says.
A signature tag line beneath your signoff is a must, says Ms. Whitmore. This could list your name, your company’s name, your phone number and perhaps your website and one social-media handle.
“Don’t put unnecessary things in your signature like quotes or religious sayings,” Ms. Whitmore says. Similarly, photos in signature lines may not come off well. “Not everybody needs to see your picture,” she says.