With more people suddenly finding themselves working from home, digital communication tools – usually the quiet, slightly annoying stagehands that help out in the background – have been pushed into the limelight. Where you might usually speak to someone in person or organise a meeting, remote working means making do with digital substitutes. Starting with one of the oldest: email.
Everyone knows how to email, right? Not so fast. What constitutes correct email etiquette is a largely subjective thing; the ‘rules’ you take for granted may not be universally accepted or understood. In a workplace environment, this mismatch of expectations can easily lead to misunderstandings — ever received an email you felt sure was passive-aggressive only to later realise the sender’s style is always so abrupt? — so it can be a good idea to make sure your team is on the same (digital) page.
“I think it’s a misconception that everyone in the modern workplace knows how to email, especially younger people,” says Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist and author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. She points out that people who got online after the rise of social media may never have emailed socially, instead becoming accustomed to the norms of other digital messaging formats, such as chat or social media posts. “People who have been online for ten years or even 15 years haven’t been exposed to routine professionalised emails — routine emails for trying to accomplish tasks between people in a professional context.”
And it’s not really fair, McCulloch says, to get mad about people not meeting your standards if you haven’t made them clear in the first place: “If you have certain unwritten expectations for how people are going to email you, it’s valuable to make those expectations written down and explicit, rather than just being annoyed when people don’t do them.”
If you fund yourself suddenly relying on digital tools more now, it may be a good moment to start that conversation.
Will Schwalbe, co-author with David Shipley of the 2010 book Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better, goes further. He believes that every workplace should have an email policy, plus give employees training on how to conduct themselves over email. “Email, as we see it, is the most dangerous piece of equipment in your office,” he says. “It can ruin careers, it can also destroy companies.”
In the worst-case scenario, a reckless email could have legal ramifications. But everyday emails can also have a huge impact on company culture, as well as how a company is perceived externally. Schwalbe recommends organisations or departments go through every aspect of email, from the ‘To’ field (Who should you send this to? Do you really need to include a whole mailing list?) to the subject line (Is it descriptive? Are you mingling topics?) to the signature (he recommends all companies have a signature with their contact details) to agree on some ground rules.
He’s a fan of the more recent trend of including pronouns in email signatures, which he believes “helps create a culture where people can bring their full selves to work”, and says teams should work together to decide what sort of tone is appropriate for their work. Correct grammar and punctuation may be essential for someone working in publishing, for example, whereas people in another industry may take a less formal, more chatty approach.
Just as important as knowing how to email, however, is knowing when not to do it at all. “A very simple rule to instruct people in is if it’s emotional or complex, it’s probably time to get off email,” Schwalbe says. A phone call, if you can’t meet in person, may be a better idea. And emailers should always bear in mind that their messages may well end up in front of a much larger audience than they anticipated, whether through legal discovery, a leak or a hack. “One rule everyone should take away is if you don’t want it on the front page of the New York Times, or the Times of London as the case may be, it should never be in an email.”
It’s not just about legal issues, or even really etiquette. Having some mutually-agreed rules around email can also aid productivity and help rescue people from the constantly-replenishing quicksand of their inboxes. As a linguist specialising in how the internet affects language change, McCulloch is happy to see people get creative with email tone. “The thing that I care about is triage,” she says. And that means: informative subject lines.
McCulloch practices what she preaches; on the contact page of her website, she includes specific instructions of how people in different capacities should email her in order to get a good response. The main point is to make it clear what you are emailing about and why. “Ideally, you write the whole email, then you write the subject line by looking at the email and saying ‘what is the three to eight words summary of this entire email?’”
This means the recipient can easily see what the email is about, whether any action is required, and how urgent it is that they respond. McCulloch emphasises the need to think of the other person when you’re choosing your subject line. Including their company name may be helpful for you as a unique identifier, but the name of your company will likely do more to distinguish it from other emails in their inbox. “A lot of people use search these days rather than folders to find old emails, and for search, you want to have your keywords, especially in the subject line,” she says.
Aside from the details of individual emails, it may be a good idea to communicate to your team what your overall expectations of email usage are — especially if you’re working from home, where the lines can easily blur between work and leisure time.
Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School, doesn’t think companies necessarily need a hard and fast email policy, but says leaders should give guidelines so that employees don’t make false assumptions. In one setting, her team found that many people thought there was an unwritten rule that they should respond to an email within a two-hour window — “but when they checked this with managers, the managers said no, we don’t expect that at all.” Perhaps even more so than email itself, the lack of clear expectations was contributing to unnecessary stress.
When deciding email rules for your company or team, Schwalbe says, it’s best to discuss from the ground-up so people can agree together on best practices and hold each other accountable (time for an all-hands Zoom call perhaps?). And if you do need to nudge a colleague on their email comportment, he advises an in-person conversation. “Email errors are best brought up off email,” he says. “They can really seem scoldy on email.”
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Vicki Turk is WIRED’s features editor. She tweets from @VickiTurk
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