Running a company means receiving and responding to hundreds of emails every day, from colleagues and friends, to recruiters and readers. Over the past eight years, I’ve encountered notes from strangers that started "Blogger,” and others from contacts who refer to me simply as “Cupcakes and Cashmere." Through the good, the bad, and the just plain-awkward, I’ve developed some rules of email etiquette to keep in mind for my own responses:
I love an exclamation point once in a while to avoid coming off as cold, but Geoffrey adamantly believes that it’s never appropriate to use exclamation points in any professional correspondence. Because there are so many schools of thought when it comes to exclamation points, I find that it’s safe to use them as long as it’s done sparingly. A good rule of thumb is to avoid using them two sentences in a row. For example, you might write “It’s nice to e-meet you!” which is fine on its own, but following that with “I hope you had a fantastic weekend!” can come off as unprofessional and overly conversational. It’s also a good idea to never use smiley-faces - while they’re great over text message, they can come off as young and unprofessional over email.
An email should convey its information in as few sentences as possible. No one likes a cluttered inbox, so efficiently-written, digestible emails are key. If you’re reaching out for the first time to introduce yourself or to send a cover letter, keep it under four sentences and reduce the fluff (words that don’t directly convey the goal of the email) to a minimum. For example, writing, “I look forward to hearing from you” is standard, but “I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience and appreciate your time and consideration of my request”,” while professional and thoughtful, is a little overboard.
When reaching out to someone for a business ask, it can come off as rude to jump straight into the request without first establishing a personal connection. It’s the email version of ‘how are you’ small talk. But instead of writing something canned like, “I hope all’s well!” make it more personal, while still keeping it to a sentence (see above). Here are some opening sentences I’ve used in the past, for inspiration:
- It was so nice running into you last week at the [fill-in-the-blank] event.
- Last time we spoke, you had just moved into your new home - I hope you’re all settled now!
- I thought of you last week when I was at Gjelina, I know it’s one of your favorites.
From there, you can easily jump into the bulk of your email, with “I wanted to ask you about…”
When emailing a professional, especially a superior, follow their lead. For example, if they’re still signing off every email with “Sincerely,” maintain the same level of professionalism with a similar signature. Once they’ve dropped the closing line and are signing off with just a first initial, feel free to follow suit.
Your tone of email should vary based on how well you know the person on the receiving end. When writing to girlfriends, I’ll often disregard basic grammatical rules and lay on the all-lower-caps/all-caps and smiley-faces, in a way I’d never do when writing a professional email, of course.
When you don’t know who’s on the other side of the receiving end, it’s a good idea to be more professional than you think you should, since you never know who your email may be forwarded to. For example, if you’re writing to a generic job application email address, write “To whom it may concern,” but if you’re writing to a customer care team over a cute blouse you can’t find online, it’s okay to go with a more casual, “Hi there.”
On the topic of names, you shouldn't refer to someone by a nickname if you've never met them. Nicknames are fond and familiar terms we use for people we know well enough to do so. If you're emailing someone whose name is Katherine, you shouldn't presume you're on a casual enough basis to call her "Kath" in your first email exchange, even if you know that's a nickname of hers.
Once you’ve written an email, don’t send it. First, read it all the way through to catch any grammatical errors. Be especially aware of conciseness, run-on sentences, typos, and little things like correct usage of commas and semicolons. For especially important emails, I’ll read them out loud, which helps me catch errors, or send them to G for a quick once-over before sending. While small and easy to make, grammatical errors and spelling mistakes can come across as careless, which is never a good impression to make.
This should go without saying, but it’s a good idea to create a go-to closing line for different situations. For the most professional emails, I’ll sign off with “Sincerely,” but for emails to a colleague or to someone I’ve worked with previously, I often close with “Best,” “Warmly” or “xEmily” for close friends. This list, which I recently posted on Links I Love has some great options to choose from.