The Expert Guide to Professional Email Etiquette for Elegant Communication
Just as we strive to speak professionally and eloquently, we can also aim for an articulate manner in our writing. This guide to email etiquette will get you started.
Life before email is nearly impossible to imagine. Most of us spend almost 28% of our working life reading and answering emails (Mckinsey). And then there’s our personal email on top of that!
Long gone are the days of parchment and fountain pens, but as we all strive to work efficiently, are we losing the elegant touch that comes with receiving a handwritten card or wax-sealed letter? Quite possibly. But it doesn’t have to be that way because you can infuse your electronic communications with a sophisticated and elegant touch; all it takes is refreshing your professional email etiquette.
You can use many strategies to manage your inbox for efficiency, especially if your work life is hectic, but today, let’s focus on how poise and elegance can increase in your inbox and how you can implement long-lasting netiquette techniques in your professional communications.
In the workplace, you’re not likely to get training in how to script a world-class email. This article will assist you to achieve email excellence by outlining core principles relating to professional email etiquette.
This blog post is best digested in 3 parts:
- Check the tips for summarised below
- Watch the vlog for more detailed training
- Download our brochure to learn more about our services
While this article has been prepared with team leaders, executives and CEO’s in mind, keep reading if you are an employee as you’ll no doubt find topics covered fruitful for your personal career development.
It may not seem like every email you send is important, and yes, not all emails are equal, but no matter the goal of your email, consider that every email is the same in giving you the unique opportunity to correspond with another person.
#1 Identify your intent and objectives
With the growing number of emails in your inbox and pressing tasks at hand, you’d be forgiven for going into automatic mode which can set you up for an inbox fiasco.
Before typing any response, aim for clarity of thought by pausing for a moment to amalgamate your intent.
- Providing a precise update
- Making a time based request
- Needing specific information
- Asking for clarification
Then consider your objectives
- What action do you wish your recipient to take?
- Is there a time-frame they need to know about?
- Are there next steps that need to be agreed upon?
Identifying your intent and objectives will help you to stay on topic.
At best, focus on 1 intention and objective to keep your correspondence skimmable and manageable. Lengthy emails create increased response pressure for your recipient. If you can’t limit the information to 2 paragraphs, consider an alternate communication method or find a way to refine the message.
Once your intent and objectives are clear take a moment to consider your emotional thermostat. If you are feeling angry, frustrated or stressed by the message and dynamic at hand, this could be a sign that emotional regulation is needed so that you can prepare a message that uses emotional intelligence rather than heat of the moment emotions. Impeccable email etiquette is unlikely when writing in anger. This is where social intelligence structures for positioning non-negotiables, boundaries, differing opinions and declinations can help you to keep in tact, tact.
#2 Response time-frames
At best aim to respond to work emails as received within a 24 hour time period, but I advise responding only during business hours.
If you click over the 24 hour period, send a brief message to confirm receipt of email and advise that you will send your response within a specified time frame that is less than 48 hours total since the email hit your inbox. This shows your contact that you are mindful of their request and prevents them from feeling ghosted. If you know you are not in a position to reply to emails within a 48 hour time frame from receipt of the email, be sure to have a simple out of office message running that outlines expected response time frames and provides your contact with alternate communication channels if needed. As always be mindful of your organisation’s policies and procedures around email hygiene and expectations for timely communication as it can vary between companies.
#3 Articulate your message to the person as much as the outcome
It’s easy to get distracted by the intent of your message and the outcome you want in sending it, such that the human touch, respect or even rank is overlooked.
First let’s look at the recipient. The recipient box should only be assigned to the person who you wish to act on your message. Include in that section anyone you wish to receive a reply from.
Then, in the carbon copy (cc) section include individuals for whom this information is relevant who need to stay in the loop but who do not necessarily need to reply.
Then we have blind carbon copy (bcc) where you can include anyone who you want to see the all recipients and everyone in the cc field. Any recipient in the bcc section will not be seen by your main recipients or carbon copy recipients. Use this to maintain the privacy of your bcc recipient. For example, perhaps your manager has asked you to source some quotes from service providers and they would like to receive the information as it comes across at hand. In this case, you may wish to bcc your manager so that the providers do not have your managers direct contact.
In some cases, you’ll know your recipient personally, in other cases they may barely be an acquaintance. It always helps to remind yourself that there’s a person on the receiving end with feelings, thoughts and workflow pressures. This core rule allows your approach to shift, enhancing your writing tone so that it becomes both person and intent focused.
“Shooting off an email to get something done” will now change to
“Writing to your contact to share a request, ask a question or provide an update.”
The task seems similar, but the approach is vastly different.
Email communication, unlike face-to-face conversations, removes vital information that we use to process and interpret emotions, so it pays to take care.
The fact that you can’t see your conversation partner’s face or hear their vocal intonation means shooting across bland and short statements without a human touch is risky.
Check the Feelings Wheel developed by Dr Gloria Willcox, and consider that your recipient is feeling any or many of the emotions shown. The best professional email etiquette is to serve your recipient with a specific tone that keeps the contact’s well-being intact.
It’s still ok to be concise and precise, but you’ll want to add an endearing, conversational touch to each email because this provides you with the unique opportunity to correspond with another person, treat them with respect, show how you value them (even if they’re a stranger).
Cordial correspondence will also serve you well. It builds your reputation as thorough and thoughtful, establishing you as someone nice to hear from.
No doubt you know that feeling of dread when you see a particular person’s name pop into your inbox. Usually, it relates to reduced interpersonal connection, conflict, pressure or an all-around off-hand manner. Terse or heartless emails drain our energy, so avoid point-blank sentences. Just as you wouldn’t say aloud:
“Send me the brief immediately” in most scenarios; it’s best to use tact even if the matter is urgent and write instead:
“May I please request the brief as soon as you can provide it?” or something of that nature.
Emotional miscommunication and conflict escalation are expected outcomes of poorly handled email exchanges (Sillars, A. L. and T. E. Zorn (2020). And what’s worse is the spillover effects which can include sleep difficulties, lessened inclination to complete work responsibilities and more (Yuan, Park & Sliter, 2020).
Minding your etiquette with your recipient can protect you from inflamed relations at work. Don’t let reduced social presence distract you from the idea that your reader exists and is “there” in the conversation.
This brings us to our following email etiquette principle:
#4 Improve the accuracy of emotional communication in your emails
In a study from 2020, researchers found that ambiguous emails are more often than not falsely perceived, leading to “unexpected consequences, even conflict escalation.” When sending an email, we must consider the risk of “negative intensification bias.”
Negative intensification bias occurs when the reader perceives a message as more negative than intended due to a proclivity to expect the worst. And it happens that this bias is more common in written interactions like SMS, email and work chat threads because of how the reader receives fewer social presence cues (Sillars & Zorn, 2020).
Negative intensification bias accounts for why your messages may be misunderstood or misinterpreted, no matter how invested you were, to avoid sounding rude.
This reading into a message as more negative than its intent can explain why sometimes you can still be misunderstood, no matter how invested you are, to avoid sounding rude. It’s all about embedding positive words into the email structure so that rapport is maintained and solidified.
#1 Consider the tone of your message
When it comes to email etiquette, we have many areas to cover that relate to the tone of your message. Importantly you never want your recipient to feel like you or they are a bot. With all the automatic messaging options out there and spam, if you strive to add personalisation to each email you will not only cut through noise in the inbox but come across as courteous and professional which will serve your reputation well.
You have a few choices to make when it comes to positioning the tone of an email.
Firstly, is your email formal or informal? Making this distinction is vital to set you up for success.
In the case of a formal email, you would be best to adhere to correct salutations and valedictions like:
Good afternoon Y,
Or worst still, no salutation at all.
If you are sending an email to a colleague you can be less formal and use
“Hi X” or
If you have two recipients you can write both names
“Dear Maria and Stephen”
If writing to 3 or more, use
Positioning the correct level of formality is one of the best ways to set the tone from the outset.
📣 A note on Slang:
It’s not recommended to use slang, abbreviations or nicknames in professional emails even with colleagues that you feel comfortable with. Remember email is a business domain and using professional language and decorum within your organisation’s system is always best practice.
Your relationship with recipients
Next you want to consider your relationship with the recipients. If this is your first correspondence with them it’s good to use your first sentence to introduce yourself and explain who you are.
The rank of your recipient
Rank allows us to leverage the degree by which we can make a request or instate a directive. As a word of caution, I recommend that no matter your rank in the relationship, apply a courteous and respectful tone. If you email more than one person in an organisation, this will ensure that there is no mismatch in your behaviour and manner. I often encounter a totally different tone used when clients email reception staff versus consultants. Good email etiquette means you set the bar at the highest with all contacts. We all breathe the same air, let your email tone show the same level of respect for junior and front desk staff as much as it would if you were emailing a CEO.
Likewise, using good email etiquette as a customer or client is also a good chance for you to practise exemplary communication, even if your not happy about a service or product received, remember, the tone you use can endear you to the recipient and increase the chance of action if you use an open and warm manner. Certainly firm requests may be needed if there are solid grounds for complaint or when you feel let down, but in such cases, strive to always be assertive while building rapport, it’s great practice for your integration of self-regulation no matter the pressure of the situation which sets you in good stead with your communication techniques in speaking environments.
Gestures of Acknowledgement
Include gestures of acknowledgement no matter how busy you are.
If your recipient writes that they have been unwell and on sick leave, acknowledge it and say that you hope they feel better.
If your recipient tells you they just got back from a holiday, acknowledge that too by saying “I hope you had a wonderful break,” just as you would in a face to face conversation.
Structure & Formatting
#1 Maintain a clear structure
Email correspondence gives you a unique chance to showcase how logical, thorough and structured your thinking is. The best practice is to rely on the following email structure principles.
Here are some key criteria to check your emails against to ensure you maintain professional email etiquette.
The Subject Line
Avoid sending emails with a blank subject line, that would suggest that your email had no intent or objective. It can also look spammy and unfinished.
Create a bespoke subject line for your recipient if starting the email thread. Not only will it be easier to retrieve the email thread later if needed, but you’ll also prime your reader for the content of the email and can also make it easier for them to create a response hierarchy in their inbox, especially if it’s flooded with emails awaiting attention.
Your subject line should convey for your reader the intent or key objective of your message. Design your subject line so it works like a hook to catch your recipients attention.
For example, let’s say you wish to cancel a meeting scheduled for next Tuesday. In this case your subject line could read as:
“Please cancel next Tuesday’s meeting” or “Rescheduling our meeting”
Consider the length of your subject line. Keep the core intent towards the front of the subject line so that it serves as a hook point. Be mindful that extra long subject lines will cut out in the viewer’s reading frame especially if they are accessing their email on their phone or with a reduced screen size. It’s best to keep your subject line at 10 words or below.
📣 A note on Responding in a Thread:
Limit responding in the thread with later date off-topic correspondence. Start a new email rather than having a running thread of 50 messages. This is especially advisable for commencing different topics. Information overload will fatigue your recipient and make it challenging to sort through vital information. You’ll also come across as tangential, disorderly, any potentially intense if you let the thread go rogue.
The Salutation (Greeting)
Always insert a salutation. Always. Greetings are necessary in every case to present a polite and personalised opening. Just as you wouldn’t pass your contact in a corridor and say point blank, “Here’s the report”, the first time you see them, so shouldn’t omit a greeting. Adding a salutation shows your reader that you respect them enough to invest time to structure a well-organised message, thus building rapport.
The First Line
Use the first line to build rapport and connection. After the salutation, the first sentence of your email should create openness, warmth and connection. After all, you’re writing to a person; in most cases, you’d hope they take action. This suggests the need for increased mutuality. Invest time immediately after the subject line to consider your recipient and prepare a sentence that will get to the core point and show interest and warmth. As a result, a cordial exchange has begun that will make colleagues or contact happy and relaxed to open your emails and, more likely, get their responses back in a timely and positive manner. Here marks an ideal moment in your email to thank your recipient, show gratitude, include some positive reinforcement or convey pleasure to be in touch with them. Just like you’d smile at an old friend, colleague or even new contact when you meet them, your first line can reduce social distance and increase positive connections.
The Body Copy
Keep the body of your email concise and well-organised. Did you ever eat a sandwich that was utterly overloaded with ingredients? It makes a mess. While loaded and bulky sandwiches are in fashion on Instagram, we all know how impossible it is to take a bite. Use white space, paragraphs and new lines to break your content into manageable chunks; this lets your reader digest the information calmly, which builds interpersonal rapport and keeps them fresh. Be sure to skim read and adjust your formatting to make the copy accessible and visually appealing.
The Valediction (Sign-off)
Always add a valediction. When speaking with a contact on the phone, you’d never hang up. That isn’t polite! Adding a valediction to your email is another opportunity to create a deeper social connection with your recipient through your message. You might like to use it as a chance to close the topic with a positive and warm gesture. Adding this personal touch will show your vigilance in manners and tact.
You don’t always have to end with “best” or “kind regards”, which can come across as robotic or even terse. Depending on the relationship you have with your recipient as well as the degree of formality the correspondence requires, you might like to embed a slightly less overdone valediction such as “Cordially”, “Sincerely.
If you know your contact quite well you may wish to use a more personal touch like
“Have a refreshing weekend,”
“with gratitude”, or,
“Enjoy the day ahead/ evening” to mix the content up a bit.
Remember your valediction is also the point at which you can show your contact how you wish to be referred to. So if you sign off as Dr Peters or just Sally, that would indicate to your recipient how they should address you in the future.
A valediction is non-negotiable regarding email etiquette unless you’re deep in the discussion thread by about five emails on the same day. It pays to be thorough, keep the valediction in all cases where you can.
The Signature Line
Beneath your name in the sign off it is often helpful for your recipient to include your mobile number and website address in case. In some cases you may need to include your title and qualifications. Keep company logos small and sleek and leave out quotes as they clutter your message length and don’t look professional.
Other Formatting Considerations
You can further reinforce your email structure by using correct spacing, capitalisation, punctuation, a readable font size (stick to 10 or 12), use an elegant clear font (like Arial or Times) and keep other formatting tools such as bullet points at a minimum. Also, be mindful of the colours and styling used. It’s not pleasant on the eye to read an email strewn with bright yellow highlights, bold red, or caps lock. Avoid the use of emojis and icons and limit image files in the body copy because not only can images cause issues with spam filters but it can make your message look less professional. Keep bold, italics and exclamation marks under control.
Always write in full, grammatically correct sentences for formal emails. Your email communication should look vastly different from whats app messages, or social media chat. Treat it as a document that could be graded in a writing class and you will demonstrate excellent email etiquette and solidify your professional reputation.
How can you manage an impeccable tone and showcase exceptional professional email etiquette while working on a tight time frame?
Here is where we need to take care. When we are short on time or fatigued, we are less likely to be empathetic and emotionally vigilant, so the best approach to allow for gilt-edged email etiquette is to automate what you can.
You can achieve this by building email templates that scaffold common email structures that you need to send.
Then, all it takes is selecting the necessary template, inserting it into the copy and adjusting the content. This then buys me time to personalise the body of the content and gives me more energy for adding the social element I need to ensure rapport with my recipient. If your a business owner, entrepreneur or founder I recommend developing a clear policy on email tone, branding. Consider prepping done for you email templates to ensure consistency with your team’s interactions with clients, thus assisting them to manage their workflow more successfully, and creating space for them to spend time on customising the key parts of the message further. Staff in any organisation benefit greatly from email training, especially around conflict de escalation, so if you have questions about this, get in touch as we can assist you to build up the email etiquette in your team and organisation.
Just as we strive to speak professionally and eloquently, we can also aim for an articulate manner in our writing.
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Byron, K. (2008). “Carrying too Heavy a Load? The Communication and Miscommunication of Emotion by Email.” Academy of Management Review 33: 309-327.
Sillars, A. L. and T. E. Zorn (2020). “Hypernegative Interpretation of Negatively Perceived Email at Work.” Management Communication Quarterly 35: 171 – 200.
Zhenyu Yuan, Z., Park, Y., & Sliter, M.T. (2020). Put you down versus tune you out: Further understanding active and passive email incivility. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology,
About the Author
Dr Sarah Lobegeiger de Rodriguez is a Keynote Speaker, Executive Speaking Coach, and Opera Singer who likes to play with words, sounds, and your impact.
Her academic background is in Music Performance, Communication Science and Speech & Language Pathology. She assists executive communication clients all over the world as a communication consultant with strong expertise in CEO, Founder and Entrepreneur communication strategies.
Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn.
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