If you’re angered by an email, step away and take a few breaths before replying, writes Raewyn Court.

Email. It's a quick and efficient form of communication, often forming the majority of workday connections with clients, customers and even colleagues seated two desks away. However, without body language or voice cues, email can sometimes be a minefield of misunderstandings, misinterpreted humour and unintentional offence.

In the writing of a business email, there's often a fine line between what's appropriate and what's not. Should it be kept strictly formal, or is a bit of banter OK? What's irritating and time-wasting to the recipient? How many exclamation marks are too many? And then there's the hazard of hitting "send" before checking the addressee, which can result in embarrassing emails being sent to the wrong recipient.

Encapsulated from a variety of sources, here's a rundown of the best advice on business email protocol, and some horrifying examples of self-sabotage by mouse-click.

Know your audience


Your email greeting should be consistent with the level of formality of the person you're communicating with. Using "Hey", "Yo", or "Hiya" never looks good, but "Hi" or "Hello" is completely acceptable. To be more formal, use "Dear (Sebastian)", but don't shorten a business contact's name. He may want to be known as Bazza only to his friends. Knowing how to sign off can be tricky. "Yours sincerely" is generally too formal in an email, but "Kind regards" is polite and friendly. If you know someone reasonably well, you'll be safe with "Cheers" or "Best".

Introduce yourself

Don't assume the person receiving your email knows who you are or remembers meeting you. If you're not sure whether the recipient will recognise your email address or name, include a brief reminder of who you are and, if appropriate, where and when you met them.

Be clear in your subject line

Inboxes can be flooded with hundreds of emails a day, so it's crucial your subject line gets to the point. It should be reasonably simple and descriptive and must match the message, so change the subject as soon as the thread of the email chain changes. A subject line saying "Hi" or "Just checking in" could easily be trashed or be harder to find later when you need it. And keep it short — anything longer than 10 words will make the recipient's eyes glaze over.

Respond in a timely fashion

Respond to emails as soon as you're realistically able to. You don't want to leave people hanging, but responding within 24 to 48 hours is usually acceptable. If the message deserves a little more time and thought, confirm you've received it and notify the sender that you're going to take a bit of time to think things through.

Multiple punctuation marks and emojis


Use exclamation and question marks sparingly. "The teambuilding day was amazing!!!!" looks like a teenager's Instagram post. "Haven't received a reply from you yet????" can be construed as demanding and critical. Be wary about using a smiley or other emoticon unless you have an informal relationship with the recipient.

Keep it short

Write concisely, with lots of white space, so as not to overwhelm the recipient. Provide the purpose of the email early on, and feel free to use bullet points. And there's no need to reply with time-wasters like "thanks" or "ok" to information received. If you really want to briefly reply, put it in the subject line so people don't have to click into the email.

Be careful with humour

Humour doesn't always translate well via email. A bit of light-hearted banter is fine between workmates but beyond that, what you might think is funny could be taken as sarcasm. And an attempt to use humour to lighten up criticism can be interpreted by the recipient as being mocked as well as criticised! The worst scenario is a joke at the boss's expense ending up in his or her email inbox. When in doubt, leave humour out of business communications.

When not to email

Major no-no's are emailing with devastating news, firing a client or staff member, reprimanding someone and disparaging other people. If you're angered by an email, step away and take a few breaths before replying — remember that email correspondence lasts forever. It's better to pick up the phone when a topic is confidential or has lots of parameters that need to be explained or negotiated. And don't use email for last-minute cancellations of meetings, lunches or interviews as the recipient may not see it in time.

Proofread, proofread, proofread

If your email is littered with misspelled words and grammatical errors, you may be perceived as sloppy and careless. Check your spelling and grammar and watch for typos. Olivia's manager's name is Butch but she emailed everyone in the office, "Bitch will be back on Thursday".

Filling in the recipient's address after you've typed the email prevents premature clicking of the "send" button. Ruby meant to email her boss, "Hi Matt, I am afraid I'll have to change the meeting time," but instead sent, "Hi Matt, I am afraid".

Beware the "reply all" button

If you're prepared to risk disparaging someone in an email, be careful. You might end up sending it to the person you're complaining about, as well as the boss and everyone in the company. These are some tragic examples that ended in humiliation and even termination of employment.

"I forwarded an email chain to my boss, forgetting that the earlier emails in the chain consisted of me and a colleague saying how much of an idiot he is. Oops."

"I sent this email intended for my colleague: 'I hope that nasty little dog finally dies so we don't have to hear about it anymore!' to my boss, about her dog. She's now my ex-boss."

"I wrote 'Dear Professor Sillybum' while I went to look up his real last name. Unfortunately forgot to change it before sending. Lectures were always awkward after that."

"I once accidentally hit 'reply all' to my entire company, with an email that said, 'yes, but not tonight'."