More than a message: Everything you need to know about proper email etiquette

There’s no avoiding email. Akin to a coffee shop on every city corner or endless fast food joints along highways rest stops, emails are everywhere. They clutter our inboxes, electronically scream at us in promotion of sales we rarely ever care about, and in recent years have become a troubling source of nefarious phishing attempts. Of course, emails also do a lot of good too. They’ve quite literally revolutionized how business gets done. Ask yourself, when was the last time you sent a fax?

Whether you’re a top level executive responsible for the lives of hundreds of employees, or a younger professional just trying to send out a few correspondences to potential new clients, chances are you’re using email day in and day out. Of course, email and everything that comes along with it is far more than a message. When a service becomes as ubiquitous as email has across virtually all industries and professions, it transcends simply serving as a means to a communicative end. Composing and responding to emails in 2024 should be treated as a nuanced endeavor. Here’s everything you need to know about modern email etiquette. 

Email: A worker’s worst enemy? 

In many ways, the email is a symbol of modern technological convenience. Our ancestors would truly be amazed at the speed by which we can exchange information. Ironically, however, recent surveys suggest that for most people, the email is more a symbol of modern monotony. One poll reports 48% of American workers consider email to be the single most infuriating task they’re forced to put up with on a day-to-day basis. 

Meanwhile, a research project published in the Journal of Applied Psychology concludes checking one’s email less often throughout the day is actually conducive to more productivity. Study authors found office workers spend over 90 minutes each day simply “recovering” from email interruptions.

Don’t be passive aggressive

So, what makes email so frustrating for the average employee? Another survey tells us some of the biggest email annoyances include misspelled names and emojis, but many may be surprised by how little it takes to come across as passive aggressive while corresponding via email. 

Sometimes it’s the little things that speak volumes. Further email-centric research reveals forgoing either a greeting or sign-off in an email is often interpreted as rude, curt, or passive aggressive by the receiving party. It’s also frowned upon to sign-off using nothing more than your name. Always be sure to add in a “thanks,” “best,” or “cheers,” before your name at the end of the email.

More on emoji annoyances

As mentioned earlier, it’s probably a good idea to avoid emojis while composing new emails. This notion is even supported by science. A study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found using emojis in emails is linked to a perceived lack of competence. Moreover, the study also suggests people are more hesitant to share information with others who use emojis in their emails. In other words, save the smiley faces and heart emojis for messages and texts sent to friends. 

Emails and insomnia 

It’s tough to overstate just how much a rude or intrusive email can disrupt someone’s day. Consider one piece of research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. Scientists explain impolite emails can seriously crank up workers’ stress levels, and the anxiety hardly ends at 5PM. The study notes how many employees can’t help but bring the stress brought on by rude emails home with them, with many reporting subsequent sleep issues and insomnia.

Interestingly, researchers break rude emails down into two categories: active and passive rudeness. Active rudeness refers to what you’d expect; openly impolite or disrespectful comments/messages sent via email. Passive rudeness, on the other hand, occurs when important emails simply go unanswered, leaving the sender in the dark wondering what’s going on. Tossing and turning all night in anticipation of an important email is incredibly common nowadays.

Be clear, be direct

If you’re wondering how to ensure your own emails don’t ruin anyone’s night, relevant scientific findings published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes are worth a moment of your time. While that study focused specifically on work emails sent after usual business hours (the horror!), its conclusions are applicable to emails sent during any time of the day.

Scientists advise that when writing a work email, one should always make the subject of the message quite clear. In other words, be direct. Additionally, it’s key to plainly state your response expectations. That way, the reader won’t have to worry or fret over how long they have to answer. If it’s an urgent matter, say so. Or, if the topic or issue at hand is hardly pressing, let your colleague know they can take a few days before getting back to you.