Professional Email Etiquette

Bad email etiquette was MAYBE excusable in the 90s.

Bad email etiquette was MAYBE excusable in the 90s.

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

Email subjects! AHH! I hate being constantly bombarded with irrelevant, unsearchable subject terms, or emails that veer off the thread and continue. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to search for emails again or prioritize when the subject has no useful search terms and is instead, something like “favor …” Bah! Also, reply-alls, while you’re at it lol.


Disordered Inbox


Official Etiquette:

Everyone agrees! Use a clear subject line that indicates the content of the message. And use reply all only when everyone needs to receive the response.

Our Take:

Victoria: Okay, so subject lines are super important now because email is so searchable, so they need to be something that you can search easily. Like instead of “Invoice Request” it should be something like “Smith Invoice Request”

Jaya: Right. Though I tend to be more lax about this when it comes to personal emails. If I’m sending a friend a funny link I’m not like “Tumblr Humor Harry Potter Video 2015”

Victoria: Oh yeah, this is definitely more of a business email thing.

Jaya: But with invoicing it’s especially good to use your name, since those can get lost so easily. Something descriptive, but also not putting your entire email in the subject.

Victoria: Oh yeah! As a freelancer, I’m sure you come up against this a lot.

I mean, I think it also depends on the importance of the email- is this something that people are going to have to go back and reference or is it a one off that’s going to be deleted as soon as it is read?

Though i guess for some people, it’s probably more useful to get in the habit of just using good subject lines rather than trying to figure out which emails are important.

Jaya: Definitely. It’s too much hassle to try to scale your email on how important it’ll be to the recipient

So if you do it for everything it’ll be much easier.

Victoria: Yep, and even for yourself a lot of the time! But yeah, I think ultimately you just need to avoid stuff like “favor” or “request” that is suuuuper vague. Just up it to “supply order favor” or “vacation request.”

Jaya: And when it comes to reply all, oh boy. Use bcc when you can, and use reply all sparingly

Victoria: Haha yeah, I mean it also depends on company culture. We actually use reply all a LOT, but its for good reasons. And I use BCC for some very specific things. But if you aren’t specifically told to use reply all or BCC on “these types of specific emails”

then definitely decide whether it needs a reply all or not.

Jaya: Right, if everyone’s input really is needed, use reply all. And only reply with your full, thoughtful response, not a bunch of one word answers.

Victoria: And even within that, i think if you are looping people into something, then they probably only need the major details like- this report went out to this client, and then take it out of reply all to hash out the finicky details.

Jaya: Also this probably goes without saying but triple check who you send things to because too often something meant for a specific person goes to reply all.

Victoria: Hahaha yesssss.

Anything else to add?

Jaya: In general, I think pay attention to crafting an email like it were a letter. A lot of people think that because it can be shot off so quickly and easily that you don’t have to pay attention to wording.

But I’ve had so many confusing email interactions because the other person insists on not using complete sentences.

Victoria: Omg me too.

Jaya: And it just makes it more of a hassle for everyone involved.

Victoria: Especially in a business context, its like, omg you need to be clear and maybe err on the side of being a bit formal.

Especially for emails that aren’t interoffice.

Jaya: Yes! Err on formal is good advice.

Victoria: Like, for the first email, I would always start out with a salutation, whether that is Dear… or Hi… and use your signature.

And then the following ones can devolve into just jumping into the body of the message.

Jaya: Yes, no need for salutations past that. Unless you’re emailing with the Queen.

Victoria: Hahaha, as you do.

Jaya: We’ve all done it.

Victoria: Natch


Email Greetings

Unlike paper mail, emails don’t need a salutation each time.

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

At what point in an e-mail exchange can you start omitting the greeting/salutation?


Tired of Endless Salutations

Official Etiquette:

The Emily Post Institute says you only need to use a salutation in the first reply.

Our Take:

Victoria: Ooooh, this question came from Twitter.

Jaya: Ooooh, I think it depends on who you’re contacting and their tone.

Victoria: Haha yeah. I mean in my formal business emails I almost never drop it but with friends I drop it pretty much right away. Like, sometimes the initial email will have it but then it isn’t used after that

Jaya: If someone else drops it I will too. But also if they seem pretty friendly I will. That’s been happening recently with research for the cookbook. [Ed: Jaya is writing a book about historical recipies!]

Victoria: Oh yeah! That kind of cold emailing for sources must be really interesting.

Jaya: Like if after one exchange they use a lot of exclamation points and are enthusiastic, I’ll get more casual.

Victoria; Definitely. And i’ve noticed that busier people definitely drop it faster- also they are usually the more “important” person in the conversation.

Jaya: It’s funny, I think we have this idea of older people being very finicky about “professionalism” in email.

Victoria: Haha I think older people are a lot more likely to be short!

Jaya: Yeah!! And to format it weird!

Victoria: Haha yeah.

Jaya: But yeah email is weird; I tend to just take the tone of whoever I’m emailing with.

Victoria: Yeah, exactly. Although, if you were emailing with someone super important, like say, the President, I would recommend keeping the more formal tone even if the other person drops it

Jaya: Oh definitely.

Victoria: Or if in business, they are the client.


Salutations in an E-Mail

That’s Mr. Fancy Painted Alligator to you. [Via Flickr user planeta]

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

I work at a job where I email a horde of people from different fields and professions: from professors to ambassadors to CEO’s to journalists, etc. I’ve got basic professional email language down, what gets me is the salutation. I know there’s a movement to get rid of the salutations and signature, but that doesn’t quite work for formal professional correspondence. Obviously you start off with the most honorific/formal, but then it changes based on their response/signature, right? I think rule of thumb says to reply back using how they sign off (Sarah, Professor Higgenbottom, Admiral McGee), but how do you handle it if they sign off with their full name? Do you revert to the more formal form again? Do you use the full name? (that sounds awkward). Do you refer to a former ambassador still as “Ambassador” or is it “Sir”? It’s a little thing that trips me up every so often.


Too Many Names

Official Etiquette:

“Dear Mr. / Madam Ambassador:” is the correct opening for a letter/email. We don’t see anything about a former ambassador, but we would guess they revert back to Mr/Ms. Professors should be addressed as Dr. if they hold a doctorate, though Professor is fine if you aren’t sure. We couldn’t find anything about when to drop formal titles, but following the lead of the professionally superior person is always a good rule of thumb.

Our Take:

Jaya: Alright, so, this is, like, a million questions.

Victoria: Like she says, the basic rule of thumb is that you follow their lead in however they sign off.  But I think what happens a lot is people automatically write their first and last name.

Jaya: Yeah, I do think it serves as a signature.

Victoria: But then, maybe in subsequent emails they will just be like -John or whatever. And that allows you to use their first name.

Jaya: So yesterday, I was emailing with a former volunteer here and I responded with just her first name, because in the last email she wrote “Dear Jaya” and not “Dear Ms. Saxena.”

Victoria: Right yeah, if they are calling you by your first name right away, you can probably do so too. Usually you are working together and not in a superior/inferior relationship anyway, so it seems strange, to me, to use Mr/Ms for too long. I’ve tried to drop it, personally, as it makes me feel very young. I think in my first couple of experiences with grown up work, I tried calling people Mr/Ms (in actual conversation) and figured out how weird that was very quickly.

Jaya: Yeah. I think if they have a title, continue to use their title. But if it’s a superior/normal person, hopefully they’ll respond with a first name

Victoria: Yeah, I definitely don’t think you should revert to a more formal title if you’ve already used an informal one.

Jaya: Totally not. But yeah, if someone signs Franklin Higglebottom, I think you can do “Mr. Higglebottom,” or “Franklin,” depending on how they’ve addressed you.

Victoria: Right. I definitely think you shouldn’t address someone by their full name. Saying Dear Mr. Franklin Higglebottom sounds like spam.

Jaya: What if…you don’t know if it’s a man or a woman? This happens to me all the time. I’m constantly Mr. Saxena.

Victoria: Awww. I think for many people, you would be able to look that up? Google their name- ambassadors should be pretty high profile and professors and such (for this PARTICULAR reader).

Jaya: Oh yeah I mean, those people you can Google. I meant like, random colleagues you’ve never met but who you need to email. Or if you’re applying to a job, something like that.

Victoria: In that case i might just use their first name. Once, I was applying for an internship and the person’s name was Stephan, but some how I read it as Stephanie, so that’s how I addressed him. I got the internship anyway.

Jaya: Hahahahaha. Did you apologize or acknowledge your mistake?

Victoria: Nope. I think people are generally pretty cool with this kind of thing

Jaya: Usually. Though I need to be less forgiving when people call me “Jay.” I wrote my name in the past email guys you should know it. “Jaya” is not a typo of “Jay.”

Victoria: Hahah yeah, that’s totally different. Sometimes I get addressed as Ms Pratt and sometimes Victoria in emails and I don’t really care. I do get a weird buzz when someone calls me Ms Pratt because I do not entirely feel like a grown up yet.

Jaya: Hahahaha, adulthood buzz.

Victoria: It’s like, ohhh they are emailing me and thus they don’t really KNOW that I am an imposter.

Jaya: They don’t really know that I’m actually a 7 year old with my mom’s iPhone, muahahahahaha.

Victoria: You have a remarkably good grasp of etiquette for a 7 year old.

Jaya: Hahahahaha. I think mainly, do your best to follow their lead, and be forgiving if someone messes up but is still obviously trying  I mean if they keep misspelling your name or saying “sup lady” when you’re the Queen, that’s a problem. But if someone calls you Victoria instead of Ms. Pratt it should really be fine.

Victoria: Totally. And, like, yeah, if you are emailing an ambassador or the president or something, err on the side of formal. But if it’s a random professor, if they get all upset about how you address them, then they are the jerk. I also think that you can drop all salutations within a couple of emails, especially if you are just writing a sentence or two.

New Etiquette Rules We Learned From This Insane Email Exchange

IMG_2284We at Uncommon Courtesy are always on the lookout for the latest in modern etiquette: what’s become acceptable, what’s falling out of practice, etc. Which is why we were overjoyed to discover this illuminating email exchange between one bride and groom and a guest at their wedding. Here are some wedding rules we’ve apparently missed our whole lives!

  • Gifts are no longer de rigueur! As the bride points out, “People give envelopes.” In fact, “People haven’t gave gifts since like 50 years ago!” Oh, and those envelopes should be filled with money.
  • “Covering your plate” is back. This bride bemoans that she “lost out on $200 covering you and your dates plate… And got fluffy whip and sour patch kids in return.”
  • A wedding is an investment, so if you throw one, make sure it turns a profit. “Weddings are to make money for your future. Not to pay for peoples meals.” Or, as some people would call it, making your guests feel welcome.
  • Twigs are rude.

To find out the ACTUAL etiquette rules for wedding gifts, check out our post on how to buy a wedding present coming up in the next few weeks.