Jeff Leek

March 5, 2021

Thinking about email

I've been a Hey email user for a few months now and I have to say I'm a fan. I was really excited when the team behind Hey announced that they would introduce a lightweight "blog" by just sending an email from my account to I have been blogging for a while, but basically it has always been a matter of activation energy to get me to write. I'm hoping having it right in my email (which I do every morning anyway :)) will give me the motivation to post a few more things that I want to get out of my head and down onto the "page".

I figured the most appropriate pilot of this new feature is a post about emails. 

One thing I've been thinking a lot about this week is email etiquette and how crucial email skill is for most jobs and how little I was taught about it. It is on my mind because we have been running a data science training program for young people who don't have a lot of job experience. When we created the courses in our training program  we included one on written and oral communication in data science. At the time, we were thinking about the obvious types of written and oral communication in data science - like giving presentations, writing reports, and one on one or joint meetings. 

But we had one big blind spot in creating that course: email. I'm not totally surprised we missed this, email is the professional equivalent of breathing for most of us. We have learned the ropes of how to communicate by email through years of sending them, receiving them, and seeing good (and very bad!) practices modeled by the people we work with. I once wrote a post about emailing busy people. But I've been thinking more generally about the unwritten rules of email and thought I'd jot down the ones that spring to my mind. I'd be really interested to hear what other people say. 

The rules I thought of in no particular order: . 

  1. Tone is hard in email. For the first interaction with a new person it is better to err on the side of formal. Later, especially if communicating with a friendly person, they can be a bit more informal. 
  2. Exclamation points and simple emojies like :) are a good tool to help convey tone. It isn't a good idea to use exclamations or emojies on every sentence, but they can be used to show enthusiasm, make it clear when you are joking, or to diffuse tension. 
  3. When writing to a new person you don't know use their formal title (and look up and make sure you use the right one - Dr., Ms., Mr. Prof. etc.). Abbreviations are ok in the titles when you email for the first time. 
  4. When addressing a person who identifies as she/her I start by assuming they have a professional title (Dr., Prof. etc.) and use that. If I am sure they don't have a title like that I always default to Ms. 
  5. If a person you work with emails you back and signs with their first name then in future emails you can use their first name when you write them back. 
  6. When you are setting up a meeting with someone it is best to (a) email them to confirm a meeting is ok, and (b) if they agree, send them your availability being as liberal as possible. 
    1. If you settle on a time to meet a person, you should send them a calendar invite with an informative subject and a link to the location at the agreed upon time. 
    2. If the first round of emails wasn't enough to find a time, you should volunteer more times that you might be available. 
  7. If you email someone asking for a favor or for something that is not a part of their core job one follow up a few days later is appropriate. If they still don't respond, it probably isn't a good idea to push it further unless it is super important for you. 
  8. Who an email comes from matters. If there is something that you absolutely need done and a person isn't responding to you, it can help to have a supervisor or someone higher up the chain send the email. Use this sparingly since it may make the receiver a bit upset you went "over their head"
  9. When performing an introduction between people, first confirm independently with both people they are ok with the introduction. Then send an email explaining who each person is and why you are connecting them. Its a good idea to sign off with something like, "I'll let you two take it from here!" 
  10. Email can eat your life, it is not required that you email back immediately to each email that you receive. But it is a good idea to try to get around to responding to personal emails if you can, as the person on the other end may be waiting. 
  11. CC lists probably deserve their own blog post all to themselves but here are a few rules I thought of
    1. cc'ing a more senior person can be useful to encourage a response, but sometimes people respond better if you just write to them without someone on a cc list
    2. cc only the people that need to be cc'd. People don't like being cc'd on emails that have nothing to do with them. 
    3. Use reply all sparingly. If the email list is huge do not reply all. In fact, its often better to copy the email address of the sender, go to a new email and send there just in case. If a reply all chain starts (you will painfully learn about these) don't respond back telling people not to reply all :). 
    4. bcc means that the person being bcc'd sees the email, but the recipient won't see. One really good use of bcc is if you have to email a bunch of people (clients, students, etc.) and you don't want them all to see each other's emails. 
  12. Emails tend to work better if they are shorter. Unless you really need to explain something carefully, err on the side of making them short. 
  13. When sending an email to a person you haven't met before, use the first 2-3 sentences to tell them who you are and why you are emailing. 
  14. When ending an email sign off with one of "Cheers", "Best", "Thanks" and then your name. 
  15. If someone replies to you without including "Dear YourName" or another greeting and just launches into the email, then you can do the same in return. 
  16. If you are delayed in responding to an email, it is common to give a small apology for the delay. This may depend on the type of email and when a response is expected, but usually if it goes a week or more, people include an apology. 
  17. If you are running a meeting it is helpful to email the agenda in advance of the meeting cc'ing the participants if it isn't part of the calendar invite for the event. 
  18. Pleases and thank yous go a long way in email just like everywhere else. 
  19. Be specific about what you hope to get out of an email. If you want to meet, ask for times to meet, if you need a document, ask for it. If you want an answer, try to make it easy for people to answer with yes or no. 
  20. For emailing busy people I have found these rules get responses more quickly. 
  21. If an email is really important, ask politely for the recipient to confirm receipt. 
  22. Avoid using ALL CAPS, it makes your email look like spam. 
  23. Emails with no subject or very short, uninformative subjects can look like spam. 
  24. If you need to address parts of an email to different people you can use @. So you can say something like 
    • @Jeff - can you please send the file to Roger
    • @Roger - can you please sign it and return it to me 
  25. Remember that emails get forwarded!!!! This means whatever you write in that email might get seen by other people. Never, ever, say disparaging things about people in an email, or say things you wouldn't want shared with other people because they are rude or private. 
  26. Remember that emails are essentially public!! For some people in government and other public situations, emails can be requested by the public. But emails also get leaked, hacked, shared, dumped, and used in all sorts of ways. Keep it professional, keep it on topic, and avoid sensitive discussions on email. 

Ok this obviously isn't comprehensive (or organized!), but I'm thinking of adding a whole lesson to the course and wanted to get the ball rolling. I'll put this up on Twitter and hopefully collect rules I've missed.