Most of my day-to-day social and professional interactions take place over email. It's my primary form of direct, one-on-one contact with students, colleagues, and co-authors. Consequently, my impressions of people are shaped by their emails. Are their emails polite or demanding? Clear or confusing? For good or ill, I judge people by the emails they send.
Based on my own personal experience, I am not alone. Others have judged me by the emails I have sent. I once lost someone's friendship because of a misjudged bcc. I am no expert on the right way to send emails.
But I have learned a thing or two from sending and receiving tens of thousands of emails, good and bad. One is that the ultimate goal of most email senders is to ask - clearly, politely and respectfully - for something. This post offers my personal reflections on how to achieve that goal.
- Every email is written for a reason. An effective email puts that reason in the subject heading. Looking through my inbox, I can see "Library Presentation on Accessing Economics Data - TOMORROW" or "VICE Canada - seeking comment re: Trump". These subject lines tell me pretty much exactly what the emails are about. This means I can deal with them efficiently and quickly, which maximizes the chances that the senders will get what they want.
- Every email is written to someone. The greeting line is an opportunity to acknowledge that someone, and show them some respect. Here are some possible ways of beginning an email, starting with the most formal, and going to the least formal:
- Dear Professor Woolley (for university professors) or
- Dear Ms Woolley (when directing business correspondence to a woman) or
- Dear Mr Woolley (when directing business correspondence to a man)
- Dear Frances
- Frances -
- Hi Frances
- Hi prof
Formality conveys respect so, when in doubt, it's best to opt for a relatively formal greeting. Being excessively formal almost never causes offence, but being overly familiar can be seen as rude and disrespectful. This is especially true (a) in a professional environment, and (b) when writing to a person who has power over you (a potential employer, referee, professor, guest speaker, etc) and (c) when writing to someone older.
University professors will often tell students how they would like to be addressed. Some put it on the course outline. Some tell students directly. Professors will often sign emails with the name that they want students to use. If I want someone to call me Frances, I'll sign my emails to them "Frances". If I want someone to call me "Professor Woolley", I'll sign my emails to them "Prof. Woolley".
The greeting line is particularly treacherous for people from other cultures. "Dear Woolley" is a dead give away that you are not a native English language speaker (either "Dear Frances" or "Dear Ms Woolley" would be the usual North American greeting). "Ma'am" is not used in North American English. Calling someone "Mr" when she is a "Ms" or calling someone "Mrs" when she is a "Professor" is an unfortunate, and avoidable, mistake. It is worth taking time to search for information about a person's gender and title, and use the appropriate honorific (Mr or Ms or Prof).
Group emails can be hard to address. But here too the greeting line is an opportunity to make people feel valued and part of a group by saying something like "Colleagues" or "Dear WCI contributors". Why waste an opportunity, no matter how trivial seeming?
3. Taking time to capitalize, insert proper punctuation, and spell words correctly shows that you care about the person you are writing to. Just about everybody likes to feel that other people care about them.
Moreover, sometimes - for example, when writing to a potential employer - it's important to demonstrate knowledge of proper capitalization, punctuation, spelling, and so on. Once I was hiring for a data entry position. The only skill the position needed was accuracy. One applicant spelled my name incorrectly. They did not get hired.
4. If you state clearly what you want, you are more likely to get it. I just received the following email:
Please find attached the Call for Applications for the __________ Programme. The deadline for applications is January 31st, 2017.
I have created a powerpoint describing the programme and can provide that upon request.
I would also be very happy to discuss the program with potential applicants and put them in touch with current interns and alumni.
All the best,
Every word in this email is clear and precise, but at the end I'm left wondering what does A___ actually want me to do? Does she want me to share this information with students? If so, which ones (first years, fourth years, MAs...)?
Meghan Duffy, over at Dynamic Ecology, has a good post arguing that "...avoiding unnecessary vagueness in emails is one pretty straightforward, simple thing that people can do to make academia friendlier to everyone." She gives, as an example, the anxiety created by a vague request such as, "Is there a good time to discuss this?" - a request that may leave the recipient lying awake at night wondering "Why does he want to discuss this? What have I done wrong? What's going on here?"
It's a good idea, after writing an email, to re-read it, and ask yourself, "Have I made it clear what I'm asking for in this email"?
5. Appreciation never goes amiss. Saying "please" and "thank you" is a good beginning. Specific praise can make someone's day. In my experience, the most successful and busy people are the ones who are most likely to write and say "thank you" when someone does something special for them.
6. It can be hard to know how to end an email. Here is a non-random sample of closing lines from my inbox:
- Cheers [Update: this is relatively informal and very British sounding, so should be used with caution.]
- Talk to you soon
- Kind regards
- Best regards
Whatever you choose, add your name, and then an electronic signature.
Again, the best guide is to think about the recipient - what is it that they need to hear from you? Is it clear from your closing that you are thinking of them, appreciative of what they are doing for you, and wishing them well? Then you're on the right track.
The language is constantly evolving. In the typewriter era, "yours sincerely" used to be a standard way of ending a letter. Now it is only used in very formal correspondence. What is polite and respectful changes over time. But what stays constant is this: asking for what you want politely, clearly, and respectfully is a good way to get it.