email anxiety

Have you heard that people actually hate you if you choose the wrong email sign-off?

Especially in professional settings, the subject is so fraught with angst that it inspired a D&D-style moral alignment grid meme:

email sign-off examples

All joking aside, we really are inundated with dictums on proper email decorum these days. Raise your hand if any of these look familiar:

Don’t use emojis. Don’t use “Reply All.” Do respond to every message you receive. Don’t use acronyms. Don’t use humor….

As a result, a lot of unproductive anxiety now accompanies every effort to send anyone a message. But are our inboxes really such hotbeds of perceived professional turpitude and ruinous faux pas? 

Prepare to clutch your pearls, but I think most email etiquette directives can safely be ignored.

That’s right. You can nix all those email etiquette rules — except the golden one.

Good Email Etiquette Explained

It is doubtful that any of your email messages will be forever etched in history. Despite the melodramatic headlines, it’s probably a waste of time to labor on creative salutations, tangential explanations, or dazzling sign-offs.

In both personal and professional settings, proper email etiquette requires only that you extend courtesy to your intended recipient(s). In this way, well-mannered email is no different than polite conversation.

Email Etiquette Exemplified

1. The right “atmosphere” always smooths the way for conversation. You can supply digital context with a concise email subject line. For example:

“Oct. 11 meeting request – security product launch w/Sterling”

2. Then simply introduce yourself if you aren’t already acquainted:

“Hello David,
As the content director for your company’s communications firm, I’m writing to request a meeting next Thursday to discuss cloud security strategy and collect your engineering insight on the upcoming release….”

Or extend a friendly greeting if you are:

Hi David,
Thanks for filling me in on your company’s cloud security strategy at the launch preview last week. I’d like to book a meeting with you on October 11 to….”

3. For your correspondent’s convenience, be brief and to the point. Email really is akin to polite conversation, but that conversation is often taking place at a very loud and crowded gathering.

Be mindful that we’re all living in an attention economy, with untold distractions constantly competing for notice and overwhelming the senses. Quick and clear is best for all digital communication.

4. It isn’t polite to make your reader guess at what you want or wade through extraneous details to glean your meaning. Ensure any request is unambiguous and located at the top of the email body copy so the reader can spot it immediately.

5. If you are responding to a question or supplying supporting detail, use bullet points, numbered lists, and visually accessible formatting to make information easily digestible.

6. And if you are referencing information contained in a series of email exchanges, resist the urge to type anything like “See thread below.” Respect your reader’s time by pasting, quoting, and/or highlighting any relevant text at the top of the message thread. You should do the work so they don’t have to. For example:

email highlighting

What Matters Most

I was just about to advocate for double-checking your spelling and attachments when I noticed my etiquette examples are starting to resemble a list of rules — Quelle horreur!

But I do hope you spot a discernable pattern and a simple guiding principle that works for all forms of communications, email and otherwise:

Be considerate. 

That’s what matters most when it comes to good manners.