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E-mail etiquette

by ACS Career Navigator
July 3, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 27

Credit: Shutterstock
How is your e-mail etiquette?.
Illustration of a person writing e-mails on a couch.
Credit: Shutterstock
How is your e-mail etiquette?.

You probably use e-mail almost every day, but how much do you think about it? Do you default to sending e-mail, or do you consider a phone call, in-person conversation, text, printed letter, or even a handwritten note as a better alternative? Once you’ve decided an e-mail is the best option, only then does the real work begin.

To: Send your message to everyone who needs the information and no one else. It’s tempting to include extra people just in case, but you run the risk of flooding them with unimportant messages and causing them to miss your important ones.

Cc: The convention is that people on the cc: (carbon copy) line should be kept informed, but they don’t need to take any action.

Bcc: The bcc (blind carbon copy) line can be useful when e-mailing a large list, so you don’t expose all the addresses. However, in most cases using bcc to include one person without others knowing is perceived as dishonest and should be avoided.

Subject: This line should be a clear and concise description of what is coming. If there is a deadline, include that. Ideally, stick to one topic per e-mail, and change the subject line if the conversation drifts in another direction.

From: This should be your preferred e-mail address.

Salutation: If writing to three or fewer people, include their names (Dear Tom, Dick, and Harry). If more than three, address the group as a whole, such as, “Dear Project Peacock Team.” After the first reply in a chain, you can omit the salutation because you’re continuing a conversation.

Body: Make this as brief as possible. Always use complete sentences and proper grammar and punctuation. Remember that the recipient will not have context, so phrasing that might work in person can appear abrupt in an e-mail. All caps (equivalent to shouting), abbreviations used in text messages, and emoticons are not generally accepted in business communication. Humor is difficult in e-mail; if you need winking faces to make your point, maybe you should have a conversation instead. If the subject matter of your e-mail is complex or controversial, let it sit overnight, then modify the text if needed—or maybe don’t send it at all and schedule an in-person meeting or phone call instead.

Reply: Most people expect a response to business e-mails within a day. If you can’t reply in that time frame, at least send an “I got your message” note so they’re not left wondering whether you received the e-mail.

Reply all: Obviously, a project discussion needs to be conducted by all interested parties, but if you’re making a comment directed to one person, don’t “reply all” and clutter up many inboxes.

E-mail is great, but it’s not great for everything. Some things are still best discussed in person, especially sensitive or controversial matters. By making sure your business e-mails are clear, comprehensive, and well directed, you can ensure that they will be read and responded to and that they reflect positively on you.

Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of ACS Network (​careers).


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