Email Etiquette: You are what you send.

Elizabeth Saloka

Ever send a super clever, funny, smart email, and then re-read it and realize you sound like a jerk? Or bat-dip crazy? Or full of yourself?

It’s not your fault! It’s email’s fault.


Email is a tricky medium, because:

1. It’s crude.

In person, you convey information through:

1. Words

2. Vocal intonations

3. Facial expressions

4. Body language

5. Visual aids (e.g., PowerPoint slides)

6. Vibes (according to hippies)

Over email you convey info through:

1. Words

Communicating through email is like painting with one big, fat brush. Rendering subtleties—such as sarcasm and self-deprecation—is a tough, messy, and often impossible task.

2. It’s easy.

Sending a birthday card is a full-blown process. You go to the store. Rifle through a bunch of cards. Buy one. Think out what you want to write. Grab a pen. Find a flat surface. Then, finally, put pen to paper.

Email’s free. And easy—just type and hit send. Because it carries no cost and requires little thought, people often don’t put much care into their emails. It shows.


Writing clear, courteous emails ain’t rocket science. Just stick with these three common sense tips:

1. Keep it simple, silly. The fewer—and less fancy—words you use, the less likely you’ll be to confuse (or, worse, offend) your recipient. Avoid sarcasm, irony, metaphor, obscure references—all the fun stuff that gets you in trouble. Need an example? Okay.

Instead of saying:

“Thad, you broke a leg—and two arms! You’ve got the charisma of a young Ronald Reagan.”


“Thad, you did a really great job.”

See? Not as creative. But less chance of confusing/offending/creeping out the recipient.

2. Listen to your gut.

You know when you read something you’ve just written, and it doesn’t sit quite right? Listen to that feeling. Remember, once you hit “send” you can’t take it back. So what’s the rush? Go grab a pretzel stick from the office kitchen. Take a walk. Whatever. Any excuse to get away from your words for a few minutes.

When you return, you might be surprised by how quickly you pinpoint what’s off. “Gee, maybe I shouldn’t tell the client he reminds me of Larry King … ”

3. Ask, “Why?”

Before sending any email, ask yourself why you’re sending it. Or, better yet, ask what your recipient will get out of it. Will it inform, amuse, or reassure them? If you can’t think of even one little ol’ benefit, you probably don’t need to send it.

Remember, too, email isn’t always the answer. Would your recipient prefer a text message or phone call? Or—gasp!—a face-to-face chat? Why labor over an email to a coworker when you could quick pop over to their desk?

Finally, word to the wise: Sending YouTube videos over five minutes long is just bad form.

Seriously, people. Nothing’s that funny.


So now you know how to stop yourself from writing bad emails. But what if you’ve already sent one? You have two options:

  • Say sorry.

When to say sorry:

Your coworker or boss says in very definite terms, “Wow, you’re a jerk.”

What to say:

“Wow, I’m a real jerk. I meant to be <funny/sarcastic/goofy/whatever> and I totally flubbed up. Please forgive me, yo!”

  • Say nothing.

When to say nothing:

Your aunt or friend seems put off, but doesn’t actually say so.

What to say:

Nothing. Let it blow over. Just make sure you take care with future emails. Chances are, in a few weeks, things will be just fine. What you don’t want to do is cram your foot any deeper into your mouth.


Feels good, doesn’t it? You want to test your skills right now, don’t you? Well, what are you waiting for? Go!