There are few things that shake my confidence in humanity more than email.
This is not solely the fault of poorly-spelled, grammatically-unsound student emails, but is equally due to the poor email etiquette I see in emails from colleagues and career professionals on a daily basis.
One immensely aggravating example of such misuse occurred this week when the athletics department at my university created an email list that automatically added all faculty and staff members. I found myself not annoyed as much by the email list as by the faculty and staff taking the incorrect steps to be removed from the email. Rather than emailing a designated address with the subject line “Please Unsubscribe” as had been directed, dozens of people, most with graduate degrees, hit “Reply All” to say “Please Unsubscribe.” As a result, for three solid hours hundreds of university employees were receiving unnecessary emails, undoubtedly getting nudged from more important tasks and wasting time on communication that did not pertain to them.
In the midst of this afternoon saga, I could not help but think that Wired’s David Pierce was spot-on when he opined, “The problem isn’t email. It’s our relationship to email that’s broken.”
We email users are dumb.
Knowing that freshly-minted college graduates and seasoned professionals are equally apt to misuse the technology, below are 10 observations/lessons about email usage that may pertain to you and/or to someone whose emails often trigger the desire to throw a stapler through your computer monitor (please forward this to those folks).
(1) Your email address is awful. This one is mostly intended for college juniors/seniors and recent graduates, but I have seen plenty of questionable email addresses from people who have been in careers for decades. Last week I was working with a client who had run his own multi-million dollar business in Washington, D.C. for 20 years. His email was something to the effect of firstname.lastname@example.org.
Make sure your email address is professional and that it is clearly represents your name. For college students, make the change now; don’t wait until you graduate.
(2) You sent an email to the wrong recipient(s). Double-check the email address(es) you are sending. You never know who you may incorrectly send an email to and what ramifications that could bring.
Last week I received an email from an administrator at my university that was not intended for me. I found the mistake to be very unprofessional, especially considering the money this person makes.
Anyone can make this mistake, but it can be very unbecoming.
(3) Not everyone in the office needs to know you are unable to attend tomorrow’s meeting because of laser hair removal. Sorry, I should clarify: I imagined someone sending an email about tomorrow’s meeting to which you sent a Reply All with information about your unwanted arm hair.
If you want to respond to an announcement with a “Congratulations” or an “I’m so sorry” do not send it to everyone on the email, only to the person for whom the response is relevant. The vast majority of Reply All messages I see are just electronically-delivered packages of self-importance. It’s really great you think you are a fantastic person for sending “thoughts and prayers” to Nancy, but let Nancy know that, not the rest of us.
In short, use Reply All on a need-to-know basis. If the person(s) to whom you are sending your email DO NOT need to know, take us off the email. Please!
(4) Your subject line is too long and says nothing of value. Subject lines with ALL CAPS or in all lower-case go to Spam folders. Subject lines that are too long and void of important information are annoying.
Keep your subject line clear and concise (ex. “Question regarding tomorrow’s assignment” or “Information about our 12/5 meeting”) as a courtesy to the person receiving the email. If it’s important they need to know it so they can open, read, and respond. If it is not, they need to know that too so they can attend to the email when they have a free moment or two.
(5) Keurig cup refills are not a priority. Use your email’s priority flag function sparingly. Not everything is a ticking time bomb. If something is in need of immediate attention (and calling on the phone is not an option), a priority flag could be in order. If that is not the case, do not use it.
As for the Keurig cup refills, that was an actual email sent to department faculty and staff.
(6) Your greeting is completely unprofessional. Know your audience. If the person you are emailing is more important than you or your relationship has not evolved into anything close to a friendship, a nice “Hello Ms.” or “Dear Dr.” or “Hi Mr.” are in order. Even if the relationship is more casual, “Hi Maria” or “Dear Dan” are more courteous than “Yo Phil” or “Sup Dawg.”
No matter where you are in your career, be polite with your greeting and respect the person who you are emailing.
(7) Your email is way too long. You may have the greatest idea or plan in the world, but if it takes 10 minutes to read about it in an email, most people are not going to give a shit.
Get to the point, tell the reader what they need to know, what needs to be done, and do not use the platform as a way for you to show off your vocabulary or work ethic If either are deserving of praise, trust that you will be recognized for it at some point.
(8) Your using uncorrect grammars. (FYI: Those mistakes were intentional.) Few things make me immediately think less of someone than poor grammar and punctuation in a professional email. This is not because I think I am smarter than other people (that’s an objective truth), but because it shows me you have not taken an extra 30 seconds to read through your email to make sure you have spelled things correctly, that grammar is on-point, and that punctuation is where it needs to be.
From now on, when you write an email, take an extra minute to read and revise. It’s the least you can do to stop yourself from sounding like a dumbass.
(9) Your email will be forwarded so consider the content. When you are writing an email, consider the content and imagine that whatever you type will be forwarded. This is another way of reminding yourself to leave out the personal stuff, the problematic language, etc. Anything that could come back to haunt you should be kept from email.
This relates to both content and tone. Make sure the words you use convey what you really want to say and that the tone that comes from those words matches the tone you want the receiver to perceive.
Lastly, emails do not go away. They form a digital paper trail. Consider this when typing and when in doubt, call the person or meet with them face-to-face.
(10) You need to respond in a timely fashion. If someone emails you and it looks important (i.e. they’ve followed the insight of No. 4), you need to read and respond within 24-48 hours. This does not include the weekends or if you are on vacation, but if you are in the office, you need to respond.
Otherwise, you are just adding to the growing population of dumb email users.
10 simple observations and you are on your way to becoming less annoying to work with.