Close Encounters of the Email Kind (Act III of IV)

For the third week we are examining the necessary evil of email, and the wariness with which we must approach this oh-so-informal medium when we use it to conduct our oh-so-important business. Last week we discussed what to put in the four lines of the header. Now we’re looking at the “Whens of Email.”

When to Say “Hi”

In the “Olden Days,” as Millennials refer to the time before email, we opened a letter, “Dear Ms. Reichert:”; now we open emails, “Hi, Amy.” We can already feel the loosening, which is nice, not so stuffy, less Victorian. A “Hi” or “Hello,” as one commentator put it, helps to “warm the recipient.” But if we don’t know the recipient, and especially if we’re asking the recipient for a favor, we can’t go wrong with “Dear Ms. Reichert” followed by a colon and separated from the body, just like an old-fashioned letter.

The Lesson

If you know the recipient well, “Hi” and “Hello” are fine ways to open an email. If you don’t know the recipient, and especially if you’re asking the recipient for a favor, you can’t go wrong with “Dear _____:”.

Email is not private. If you wouldn’t want your neighbors to see it on a billboard, don’t put it in an email.

Before composing a long email, consider picking up the phone or walking down the hall. Often a conversation is more effective and efficient than using email.

To include a longer document, either attach it or compose it in Word and cut and paste it into the email. WordRake for Outlook now allows you to compose an email of any length and rake it right in Outlook.

So you and your recipients can find old emails easily, keep correspondence on the same subject in the same email trail.

Using exclamation points taints your reputation as a smart, reliable person.

Do not use Smiley Faces to convey any part of your message. Emoticons are a lazy form of communication and are often interpreted as unsophisticated or condescending.

If I initiate an email to someone I know, I open with the person’s name followed by a comma and continue on the same line: “Amy, six months ago you asked me to notify you when WordRake for Outlook would be available.”

When I respond to an email, I usually open with a sentence, placing the recipient’s name at the end, so it feels like a natural statement: “Thank you for letting me know, Amy.”

When to Remember That Email Is Not Private

Although many of us will have our 15 minutes of Fame, far more will get 15 minutes of Infamy. Infamy is easier, and you still get your picture in the paper. If you crave one of the two, and you don’t care which (you just want the picture), here’s how to achieve Infamy now: 1) become rich; 2) buy an NBA team; 3) write a racially charged diatribe in an email. Ask Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson.

The recent brouhaha over Levenson’s offensive email illustrates again how comfortable we have become putting our hearts and sometimes our spleens into this too-convenient method of communication. We’ve been using it so long and so reflexively, we sometimes forget The Rule: If we wouldn’t want our neighbors to see it on a billboard, we shouldn’t put it in an email.

When to Pick up the Phone

I know people who spend forty-five minutes composing an email rather than explain and resolve the issue over the phone in five minutes. If your email is going to weigh in at three or four stout paragraphs, especially if it’s sensitive and might require some explaining, pick up the phone. Or walk down the hall. Remember that people will not judge your speech nearly as harshly as they will your writing.

When to Cut and Paste

For that email that must include a longer document, either attach the document or compose in Word and cut and paste the document into the email. WordRake for Outlook is now available, so you can also compose an email of any length and rake it right in Outlook.

When to Keep It in the Trail

Writing is only part of what we do in email. Almost as important is keeping track of what we write so we and our recipients can find it easily. Unless we have good reason to do otherwise, we should keep all correspondence on the same subject in the same email trail.

When to Use Exclamation Points!

Never! Remember the Seinfeld episode! “The Sniffing Accountant!” Where Elaine’s prospective boyfriend! Fails to use an exclamation point! When he takes a phone message from Elaine’s friend! Who just had a baby!!! Using exclamation points conveys the same level of sophistication as the bank teller whose signature is “Gina” with a heart over the “i.” So think about it!

When to Use Smiley Faces

Whether we write a letter, a book, or an email, our “recipient” must interpret our message by reading only our words: we can’t be there to convey “emotional signals” like facial expressions, voice inflection, and body language. But too often in emails, instead of using the right words, we send an ambassador – the emoticon.

A hundred years ago typewriters had the colon, the semicolon, the dash, and the parentheses, all the tools we need to make a Smiley Face; and the people who composed on those typewriters were as clever as we are; but not one ever put a Smiley Face at the end of a sentence. So why do we do it now?

In a 2014 article in Social Neuroscience, one psychology researcher called emoticons “a sort of visual cliché” and “a lazy means of communicating.”

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder
Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for the American Bar Association, the Social Security Administration, PG&E, Kraft, Microsoft, and law firms like Jones Day, Sidley, and WilmerHale. His critically-acclaimed Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea hit #7 on the New York Times Bestsellers List.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to provide writers a full-time, reliable editor; to save them time and money; and to give them the confidence their writing is as clear and concise as they can make it. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office has awarded nine patents to WordRake's unique technology, and Harvard Law School has recognized WordRake as "Disruptive Innovation."