Despite the availability of video and text messaging, e-mail remains the most common form of one-to-one, Internet-based communication in business settings.
You might think it's old hat by now. E-mail has been around, believe it or not, since the 1960s - before the Internet was a gleam in the eyes of technocrats at the U.S. Department of Defense.
But there are subtleties to this e-mail business - ways of looking good and not so good.
Many people let their hair down when firing off an e-mail message and write more informally than for reports or office memos. E-mail has a conversational feel to it. It's a cross between a chatty phone conversation and a formal business letter.
When sending an e-mail, it's generally OK to follow the tone of the culture where you work. If people don't capitalize the first letter of sentences or don't pay attention to spelling, don't sweat trying to dot an "i" and cross a "t."
But don't make the mistake of using the same informal tone with people outside your organization unless you're sure it won't be misinterpreted. A lot of people get off on the wrong foot by addressing people they've never met by their first name and writing as if they never made it out of grade school.
The purpose of e-mail, like all writing, is to communicate. If you prioritize speed at the expense of correctness, you'll make your e-mail recipient spend needless time trying to decipher what you're trying to say.
Think through all parts of an e-mail communication, starting with the salutation. Beginning an e-mail message by using the quaint letter-writing convention of "Dear" can make you look outdated. "Hello Mr. Jones," when being formal, or "Hi Sam," when being informal, are preferable greetings.
It's also acceptable to follow whatever convention is common in your organization when deciding how you quote someone's words in an e-mail reply. It's best to place your own words in some kind of context. If you don't use the feature offered by all modern e-mail programs that includes the original messages in your response, you should still remind your correspondent of any previous discussion and summarize the subject matter. It's generally best to quote a relevant snippet of a message and place it in front of your response, or quote multiple snippets and respond directly under each of them if you're responding to multiple points. Do, however, avoid quoting the entirety of a long message preceding your response.
Gauge the e-mail experience of the person you're communicating with when using acronyms such as IMHO, which is short for "in my humble opinion," and emoticons such as
Match your response's length with how eager you are to converse. A short, polite response indicates you received the other person's message but need to move on. A longer, thoughtful response indicates a willingness to engage.
You have more options with e-mail closings than openings. If you're making a request or filing a complaint, "Thank you" works well. "Best" is a good all-around ending. Some letter closings also work well with e-mail, including "Sincerely" and "Regards."
Some people choose to dispense with closings and salutations, but both are quick nods to politeness or friendliness. At the very least, close with your name or initials. At the other extreme, you can engage the signature feature of your e-mail program, which will automatically end a message with your name, title and company name, or other information appropriate for formal e-mail, such as phone, fax and Web links.
Don't forget to proofread the contents of your e-mail message. E-mail spell checkers, like all spell checkers, aren't foolproof. Misspelled words sometimes wind up as similar words that are spelled correctly.
Last, take a look at the headers of your e-mail. The last thing you want is for a flirty message intended for a single recipient a couple of cubicles down to go to a distribution list sent to your entire company.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.reidgoldsborough.com.