If you use email for work and school you are in good company.  Here at the University of Colorado, email is a primary mode of communication.  The good news is a well-written email is an efficient and effective method to convey information.  A well-written email is easy for the recipient to understand your message as intended and respond or act appropriately.  Conversely, a poorly written or inappropriate email can cause confusion, conflict or worse.

The reality is email is not always the best communication vehicle.  STOP! Before hitting send, ask yourself:

  • What is the purpose for sending the email? Can a better result be achieved face-to-face or over the phone?
  • Am I sending the email to more people than those who need to read it?
  • Does the email contain confidential, personal or sensitive information?
  • Does the email relate to a controversial issue?
  • Am I trying to explain something very complicated?
  • Am I trying to correct a misunderstanding?
  • Am I sending bad news?
  • Am I using email to avoid talking with someone?
  • Am I feeling irritated, angry, hurt, confused, or defensive?
  • Am I using email to vent?
  • Am I using email to try to make someone else look bad? (e.g., “BCC”)

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, do not hit send.  Rather, consider a face-to-face conversation or telephone call instead.  Indeed, a good rule of thumb is if your email might generate more than three messages (i.e., your message, the response and a final thank you), pick up the phone or have an in person conversation.

Still not sure whether or not to use email?  Below are several examples of appropriate and inappropriate uses of email.

Appropriate use of email Inappropriate use of email
Scheduling and confirming appointments and meetings. Unnecessarily sending to too many people, or the wrong people.
Connecting people who are separated by time and space. Attempting to convey delicate or sensitive messages.
Allowing people time to reflect before responding to a query. Forwarding messages without explicit or implicit permission
Reaching a large audience. Overusing priority flags and receipt confirmations.
Conveying information, data and attachments to everyone who needs to know. Used to avoid face-to-face interaction.
Supporting flexible work arrangements, including telecommuting. Spamming.
Memorializing conversations. Making personal attacks.
Addressing conflicts.

If after careful consideration, you decide that email is the best mode of communication, be sure to follow six basic rules of email etiquette:

Be Transparent
Include a descriptive subject line that explains the purpose of the email.  This helps the recipient prioritize the email, anticipate the content and easily search and locate the email later if necessary.

Mind Your Manners
Address people by their title (e.g., Dr., Professor, Mr., Mrs., Ms., etc.) and last name, unless they have asked you to do otherwise or they signed the original message with their first name.   If you are not sure about their gender or preferred title, use their first and last name. If the email is to a colleague or someone else you know, use the name you would use in person or on the phone. Be polite.  Say “please” and “thank you.”

Watch Your Tone
Tone is how you express your attitude and intention in an email message. However, because emails do not contain pitch or inflection, they are ripe opportunities for misunderstandings.  The objective is to come across as respectful, friendly and approachable. You do not want to sound curt or demanding. Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes and reread your message several times before hitting send.

While emojis and emoticons may help convey tone, refrain from using them in professional emails unless you are writing to someone with whom you have a very informal relationship.

Avoid using all uppercase letters. It implies shouting.

Be Concise
Brevity is important.  Professionals typically spend a minute on any given email.  Make sure your message includes the reason for writing and the pertinent details.  You want the recipient to read your message quickly—and still understand it.

No text speak – spelling, grammar and punctuation count!
Even though you want to save time, you should not use texting abbreviations in your professional email.  Email is a reflection of you as a person and a professional. Use full sentences, correct spelling and proper grammar.  I once had a case come through the office where someone was offended because “f/u” was part of the email; did it mean “follow up” or something offensive?  Another reason to avoid shortcuts!

Proofread and proofread again.  It is very important to use correct spelling, proper grammar and appropriate punctuation in an email to help accurately convey your meaning.  Spell words and names correctly. Check your grammar. Spell check will not flag the word “to” in the sentence, “I have to questions for you,” even though, in this context, it should be “two.”   Consciously or subconsciously, readers negatively judge senders for grammatical errors. Use punctuation to avoid run on sentences and use commas correctly.

Sign Email Appropriately
Conclude your email with a statement of gratitude and a signature block with contact information.

Final friendly reminder.  Email is like a postcard. It could show up on the front page of tomorrow’s paper.  Not only do you not have any control over what happens to your email once you hit send, emails created or maintained in the course of conducting University business are public records subject to disclosure under the Colorado Open Records Act.  For more information, please see the University of Colorado Policy 2022.

By: Liz Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder