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Six Easy Ways to Perfect Your Inbox Etiquette

The average person sends and receives somewhere around 120 emails a day. That’s a pretty surprising statistic, isn’t it?


When you take a few minutes to think about it, it isn’t that shocking. Personally, I have three email accounts, and I usually feel like I can’t step away from any sort of screen for more than two minutes without a new email alert.


When we’re constantly inundated with new messages popping up in our inboxes, it becomes easy to let email etiquette slip a bit. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your messages casual when you’re replying to a friend about lunch plans or asking for a recipe from your mom. In fact, it’d probably be weird if you were formal in those emails. However, when those relaxed and offhand email habits make their way into your professional correspondence—such as an email accompanying a job application or an email back to your boss—it’s probably time for a quick refresher on the etiquette involved with professional emails.


Here’s what you need to know:


1. Less is not more – in the subject line!

Since we’re all coping with cluttered inboxes on a daily basis, you must make it obvious and convey exactly what your message is about—particularly in a professional setting when you know the person on the receiving end of your note is insanely busy.


Be as descriptive as possible in your subject line. Something vague like: “Thought you’d love this!” works just fine as your subject when passing along an article to your friend. But something more detailed, such as: “Great article about networking tips!” is better for a professional contact.

PRO TIP: If your email can be condensed into a “yes” or “no” (or otherwise brief statement), make use of the subject line to save time for your recipient by putting your response there and adding [EOM] - “end of message.” It also indicates that no further response is required and streamlines inter-office email communication.


2. Use an actual greeting and signoff.

I can understand wanting to keep your email as brief and direct as possible. But I don’t believe in completely eliminating these two traditional components. Think of email as a digital letter. Your greeting and sign off tie your whole message together and maintains a certain level of professionalism—rather than making it obvious that you quickly and distractedly typed out the entire message on your iPhone while you were in line at the grocery store (even if that’s true!).


Whether you want to start with a super formal “Dear Cathy,” or something more conversational like, “Hey, Cathy!” is totally up to you. The important part is to remember to include these standard elements.


3. Skip shorthand and emojis.

While these forms of communication have become remarkably similar, please recognize that email is still not the same thing as texting. This means you should totally skip the shorthand and acronyms like LOL, OMG, and even ha-ha. They have no place in professional emails. Instead use complete phrases: “That’s too funny!” or a simple, “Wow!” to get the same point across and in a way that’s polished and professional.


Emojis are open to debate when it comes to work-related correspondence. I’ve been known to toss in a smiley face (or a GIF or two) every now and then when emailing a professional contact I have a somewhat close relationship with. But if you’re feeling even the slightest bit unsure, you’re better off leaving them out. The same rule applies to exclamation marks. Used sparingly, they're a great way to express enthusiasm. However, overuse them, and they just become obnoxious. Limit them to sentences where you truly want to share excitement. 


4. Proceed with caution.

Your sarcasm is charming and hilarious in person. But in your emails, it can easily read as rude. Unless the person on the receiving end of your message already has a really good feel for your personality and sense of humor, you’ll want to proceed with caution when it comes to using witty comebacks in your message.


Yes, I know that can make it feel like your emails are totally void of your personality. However, you’d rather have them seem a bit dry and dull than blatantly offensive. Right?


5. Proofread, proofread, proofread!

We’ve all read emails that are littered with typos and errors. What was your impression of the sender? I’m willing to bet you thought that person was sloppy. If he or she couldn’t even take the time to spell your name correctly, you’re likely not too excited about needing to continue a professional relationship with that person.


It should go without saying, but it’s imperative you proofread your emails before sending. Check for grammar errors and typos, and make sure that you’ve correctly spelled any proper nouns (think people and company names). Take a second look at the email address (you want to make sure you’re sending to the correct person) and subject line.


6. Time matters.

This is something I wrestle with a bit. On one hand, I wish we could eliminate the pressure we all feel to be constantly connected. On the other hand, I know how frustrating it is to wait on a response from someone when I desperately need an answer. When it comes to your work emails, make it your goal to respond promptly—usually within one business day. Even if you can’t pull together a detailed reply in that amount of time, at least touch base and let the sender know you’ve received the message and are working on it. It’s far better than leaving that person wondering if their note is floating aimlessly in cyberspace.


Don’t sacrifice quality for speed. You don’t want to fire off a reply so quickly that you neglect to put together a thoughtful response (unless you’re just sending one of the above mentioned confirmation emails). People won’t be happy to receive your reply if it totally misses the mark or fails to answer all of their questions.


We all feel chained to our inboxes. Who can really blame us for letting our email etiquette slide a little bit? When it comes to work and career-related correspondence, it’s important you do your best to remain as professional as possible.

Last Updated: May 3, 2016
About the author

    Alexandra Hoeflicker

    Alex is a Tucson-raised, Austin-based brunch aficionado. She enjoys a solid cup of coffee and browsing used record stores.