Missing messages on etiquette

By David Maida

Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

Just last month something historic happened in the world of email. The Associated Press officially removed the hyphen from the word "email" in its stylebook. In business, email is the chosen form of communication whether we want to reach someone across the desk or across the planet.

But since the first email was sent in 1971, how effectively are we using it? Someone's email etiquette can either help them look professional or deter their advancement and even cost them their job.

Dr Romie Littrell (PhD), associate professor of international business at Auckland University of Technology, conducts a course in email etiquette and says business communications should be somewhat formal and structured. But unfortunately that's not the case in New Zealand, he says.

"With New Zealand being probably a more egalitarian society than most of the rest of the world, the habit of informality leads to a lax approach to communication in business and in academics," Littrell says.

Littrell has taught all over the world and says New Zealand students are the most prone to using texting shortcuts in email.

"I find using texting abbreviations to be totally inappropriate in a business setting and an academic setting as well. I point out to the students that it's unacceptable and it lowers my opinion of them when I get something like that."

Besides text-speak, Littrell says the use of "mate" as a greeting also creeps into emails which he says is interesting. But for most business emails it's other issues that can complicate things. Despite its importance, email etiquette is largely ignored by many people.

For instance, one primary benefit of email is its speed, so replying back to someone within 24 hours is customary. Even a quick response the email has been received and you'll look at it closely later is appreciated.

Littrell says there are some basic guidelines for making email more effective. When sending to more than one person, the "To:" line is only for those who need the information contained in the email or need to act on something contained in the email. The "Cc:" line should be for those who merely need to be informed. That way, when you receive an email you're merely "Cc'd" in, you know you generally don't have to do anything. It's dangerous to use the "Bcc:" line to hide a person from the recipient because emails get forwarded around.

Littrell says use "Bcc:" to keep someone informed where it's not necessary for the recipient to know about, for instance your secretary.

Generic subject lines such as "hello" or "important" should never be used. The subject should describe what the email is about to give the reader an idea of what it is and determine its importance. A distinctive subject line also helps you keep track of your conversation threads when people respond back to you. "It should be a summary of the message in a few words."

If during an email thread someone changes the topic, Littrell says you should change the subject line. This is particularly handy for those who save emails by topic.

"Changing the subject line in a reply when you change the subject is essential etiquette."

Littrell recommends one topic per email but when this is not practical he says it's a good idea to list how many subjects you're talking about in the first line and number the subjects within the body of the email.

This prevents people from missing material at the bottom because they failed to scroll down far enough. But emails should not be that long. If it takes up more than one screen consider putting it into an attachment.

When using attachments, particularly with people you don't know, say what the attachment is.

"Give them enough information that they can either decide to open it or not."

Including a proper signature at the end of an email is imperative. Every email, even replies, should include at least your full name, job title, organisation and telephone numbers. Above all, think before you send.

"Be very careful what you put in an email because it's a public document and any negative, particularly anything personally negative, has a high probability of getting back to the person you said it about."

Contact David Maida at:

- Herald on Sunday

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