15 Rules of Email Etiquette to Know Before You Hit Send

A good email mantra to abide by is: never send something in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the paper. It’s short, sweet and pretty self-explanatory. 

Still, there’s a lot to consider before hitting send on a work email, like the internal anxiety attack and threatening nausea that the mere thought commands, for example. To help with that, we’ve compiled a list of tips to help you perfect your email etiquette.  

1. Choose your email address wisely

Fact: true embarrassment lies in your first email address. Marketing manager, Kari Beaulieu, confesses, “My email address in high school was [email protected].” Sadly, she says, “I still get emails from college-aged professionals who are using email addresses just like this.” Her advice: “If you’re interacting with a potential employer, use your school email address or create a Gmail account that’s as plain as possible—think just your first and last name. If that’s not available, try changing the order or throwing in your middle name.”

Your email address is more than likely the first thing your recipient reads, especially if this is a first-time interaction. Think of your email address in this situation as your interview suit: there’s no doubt that you’d want to make a memorable and professional first impression at a job interview, so you—of course—dress the part. Make sure your email address does the same. Besides, using the format that Beaulieu suggests gives you the added bonus of ensuring that your recipient knows your name right away—and that’s a major key.   

2. Create a concise subject line

Most professionals, if not all, decide whether or not an email is worth their time based on the subject line alone. That’s because most people already spend way too much time checking their email. The Huffington Post reports that the amount of time we spend checking email per week is actually equivalent to the number of hours it would take us to binge-watch the entire first season of Orange is the New Black (really, which would you rather do?).

When it comes to the subject line, keep it brief and keep it relevant (absolutely no one likes click bait!). Use logical key words that pertain directly to the content of your email. If this is an urgent message, indicate that in the subject line but avoid using all caps. 

Every email should have a subject line! Amanda Augustine, career advice expert, told Business Insider, “An email with a blank subject line will likely go unread or get lost in a cluttered inbox. Write the subject line before the email so you know it’s taken care of.” 

Not only is this important for obvious professional reasons, but it’s also a tremendous help when you (or your recipient) are searching through your inbox for a very specific email. If you included a subject line—and it was relevant—chances are that a quick key word search will generate the email you’re looking for.

3. Address your recipient by name

Be honest, you’ve probably sent an email addressed To Whom It May Concern at some point in your life. Though it might have saved you the trouble of having to call and ask for the appropriate contact (because, let’s face it, we’re all deathly afraid of actual phone conversations), this greeting comes across as lazy and impersonal. Even if you’re cold emailing a company for a job or some other business inquiry, it’s always a good idea to identify a direct and appropriate contact. If you’re having a hard time pinning down a name, try a LinkedIn search for the company to connect you to some of their employees.

Keep it formal, especially if this is your first encounter with the recipient. Refer to the person as Ms., Mr. or Dr. in your initial email—especially when referring to a superior. Ellen Yin, PR director at Ledbetter Inc., recommends letting the other person set the tone of the email. If they sign off with a first name or nickname in their reply, address them by this name in your follow-up emails. For example, if your recipient signs off as Alex, she may find it a little weird if you keep addressing her as Alexandra in your emails.

4. Introduce yourself

Yin adds that it’s important to introduce yourself briefly at the beginning of your email. “Don’t assume they know or remember you. If you’ve met before, remind them of the encounter. For example, after my greeting, I say, ‘It was great meeting you last fall at OSU’s college career fair. I enjoyed speaking with you about Ledbetter’s new interactive workout program and recently had a chance to try the Forever Fit Guide myself.’”

If you’ve never met them before, include an introductory line that clearly states your name and your position before writing anything else. An email relationship is not all that different from an in-person relationship. Be professional, but personable. 

5. Be courteous

Avoid excessive or aggressive punctuation, like exclamation points. These can be misinterpreted in an email because the recipient cannot see your facial expressions or body language, and they cannot hear your intended tone of voice. The same goes for typing in all caps.

Jodi Adler, author of How Dare You? Helpful Hints for Staying Sane in an Insane World, adds that in an email, “snark and sarcasm often lose their meaning, so unless you know a coworker well, leave the snark for happy hour.”

6. Be respectful of others’ time

You know all those sayings about time—how it’s fleeting and waits for no one, blah blah blah (time is obviously very obnoxious and a little self-indulgent)? Well, they’re true. So keep emails brief and to the point since most people receive dozens of them daily. A long, unorganized email is likely to be deleted without ever having been read.

Also, be mindful of other commitments your recipient may have when requesting urgent responses. It’s best to give them 48 hours to respond before following up if the situation is urgent; a week if it is not. Lastly, it is your responsibility to express gratitude for your recipient’s time and to respond to them in just as timely a manner. 

7. Pay attention to grammar and spelling

Relationship and etiquette expert April Masini says, “The attention you pay to an email translates to the attention you’ll pay to a relationship, whether it’s career-related or personal.”

Make sure you spell check—multiple times if it's an especially important email. Masini’s golden rule is: “If you’re sloppy with your spelling, you’re going to be sloppy elsewhere in life.” She also warns against emojis and text lingo: “Use words. It shows your ability to communicate.”

8. Don’t send emails while you're angry or emotional

“Just. Don’t,” says Janet Kornblum, a media training coach. “We’ve all done it: sent that ranting email. It felt great to get it off your chest. And then you thought about it or it came back to bite you.” Instead, she says, “If you need to write it, do it but don’t fill in the recipient line, lest you send it accidentally—angry emails only beget angrier responses.”

It’s kind of like that episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians when Kourtney’s therapist suggested that she compose her not-so-pleasant emails and text messages to ex-beau, Scott Disick, without actually sending them, as some type of cathartic release. Except, Kim accidentally sent one and ruined everything. Don’t be Kim.

9. Minimize calls to action

One email should have one call to action, that is, one request you are making of the recipient. CEO and Publicist, Erika Taylor Montgomery, says it’s important to make it clear if you need information from the recipient. “Because they can’t see you or read your body language, it’s important to try to reduce misunderstandings. Try ending the email by reiterating the question and a time by which you need a response, like ‘Can you please send me those details by Wednesday at 3 p.m.?’” Specifying a deadline, if applicable, will help your colleague prioritize their time—and is more likely to get you a timely response without the need to follow up regularly.

Unless necessary, avoid asking for too much per email; details may get lost and it can be overwhelming to see five different requests in an email.

Related: How To Write The Perfect Networking Email

10. Know when to use “Reply All”

This is a tricky one.

PR expert, Meredith Frazier, warns, “If there are multiple people looped in on an email, please, please, please make sure you hit ‘reply all’ on all correspondence. If people get cut out of email chains, even if it’s unintentional, it can cause some major headaches. If someone took the time to add people to an email, please hit reply all and keep ’em on there!”

But! Always pay attention to the list of people included in the email before replying all. Sometimes, office managers or other administrative personnel will send out mass emails requesting personal information in return (like your home address or office passwords, for example). This is definitely not the kind of information you want email blasted to every single person in your company.

11. CC with care

Marketing and social media expert, R.E. Beck, shares this memorable tidbit about copying others in an email, and we agree: “Remember the ‘three-way calling attack’ scene in Mean Girls? It applies to office email, too. Say you're having an email discussion with a coworker, and after a few messages you think it makes sense to loop in your boss. Before you add your boss' email to the CC line, give your coworker a chance to veto the idea. She was having a conversation with you—don’t unexpectedly share that conversation with a third party.”

12. To BCC or not to BCC—that is the question

BCC-ing someone on an email allows you to include that person in the recipient list, without other recipients knowing. It is especially helpful when sending mass emails to guest lists or college student bodies—situations in which it’s best to keep everyone’s email addresses confidential.

That being said, BCC is sometimes seen as the office equivalent of shade. As in the case of “Reply All,” use with caution and only when appropriate. 

13. Attach the document

No, really. Nothing is worse than sending an email referring to an attachment—that you forgot to attach. Ok, we lied. There is something worse: the follow-up email you’re forced to send, explaining your error.

Luckily, some email servers will alert you if there’s no attachment to an email in which you mentioned, “see attached.” Either way, always double check!

14. Sign off respectfully

There are lots of ways you can close a professional email. Any of the following will work just fine: “Best regards,” “Sincerely,” “Thank you,” or “Looking forward to hearing from you.” Your sign-off should reflect the organizational culture of your office. For example, in a more laid back or casual office, “Best Regards” might sound oddly formal. Simply “Best” or even, “Thanks,” might be sufficient.

Also, once you’ve emailed back and forth a few times (or if the conversation is ongoing), you may not need to sign off formally moving forward. If this is true of your situation, you can close the email by typing your first name or preferred nickname.  

15. Make sure your email signature is precise and professional

Career coach and social media expert, Carlota Zimmerman, says, “When I get emails from potential clients telling me they’re having a hard time finding a job, and under their signature are GIFs of '90s movies, three phone numbers, a backup email like [email protected], and for good measure, an Ayn Rand quote, my immediate response is ‘Oh, ya think?’”

Ideally, your email signature should include your full name, job title, company’s name and website, office and cell numbers, and office location. If applicable (and professional), you may also include social media links, but only if the linked profiles are relevant to your job.

Note that your company may already have a standard signature format. If one is not provided during your onboarding process, ask your supervisor or peers for advice. The standard signature is often customizable; you can adjust your contact numbers (which is especially useful if you rely more on your mobile phone than on an office phone), and sometimes even the social media links. It’s advisable to check with your supervisor before making any changes to the standard signature, no matter how insignificant they may seem. Better to be safe than sorry.

The art of the professional email is complicated. There’s a lot to consider—like tone, language and timing—and different industries call for different levels of professionalism. But just like it’s better to be overdressed than undressed, it’s better to err on the side of formality when you’re uncertain about an email. Your recipient will respect that you took the time to compose a concise and considerate message.