In the age of text messages, Instagram DMs, and disappearing Snapchats, it seems like sitting down to draft an email is like crafting an opus! Adulting, however, means being able to appropriately communicate in this medium. If you’re nervous about sending work missives, or need practice avoiding that “Reply All” button, here are some tips to approach emails with confidence.
The mirror test
Over the course of the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time emailing working professionals — whether job-searching during my senior year or sending inter-company emails at the position I landed. Emailing someone for the first time can be a nerve-wracking process, especially if it’s someone you’ve never met in person.
One of the easiest ways to calm your nerves when emailing with someone new is to use the “mirror test,” so to speak — use the same format and formality that you receive in a response.
If you’re the one reaching out first, always err on the more formal side for your address and tone. I’ll lead first-time emails with Mr./Mrs./Ms. and am sure to sign off with my full company email signature. Once you receive a response, look for a few key things in the email: How does the person address you? Are they also using a proper form of salutation, or are they using your first name?
Second, re-read the email a few times to gauge the tone. Is the person responding in a casual fashion, or a more business-like voice? Understandably, tone can be hard to pull from some emails, but I usually look for indicators like exclamation points to signify enthusiasm and openness.
Most importantly, how do they sign off on their email? Look to see if they use their full name, first name only, or a more formal signature.
Once you’re ready to respond, apply that mirror test to reflect the same tone, form of address, and type of signature that you received. Additionally, the formal nature of an email will often lessen the longer you communicate with someone.
Pushing the right buttons
We’ve all gotten them: the dreaded and endless “Reply All” email chain that just won’t go away. Inevitably, you tune out of the thread because the details are no longer pertinent to the original message (I know I have)! One of the important tenets of email communication is relevance. While it’s easy to become sidetracked when composing a message with all that white space in front of you, keep your emails focused.
If you’re part of a larger email chain, is your response necessary for everyone else who’s copied? Or would it be better suited for a few individuals? Taking the time to remove extraneous addressees from chain emails can keep the reply threads to a minimum and the task at hand the center of attention. If you’re on the receiving end of a seemingly never-ending barrage of messages, it may be appropriate to remove yourself from the chain. In those instances, I usually email one person and politely ask to be removed from the list.
One other tip for using the right email buttons: never put an email address in the “To” line until you’re ready to send the email. Computers can glitch, shut down, and refresh, and I’ve had emails send before I fully proofread them or had even finished typing all the content. Reviewing the body of the email and then adding the recipient can save you from the awkward moment of explaining emails sent prematurely or by accident.
Check, double-check, then triple-check
This should go without saying, but always proofread your emails before you send them. Not only should you make sure everything is spelled correctly — there’s a spellcheck feature built into most email applications — but make sure your grammar and punctuation are appropriate for the situation.
I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a chronic exclamation point user. It’s difficult for me to write an email without adding that little bit of punctuation (often at the end of every sentence), mainly because I don’t want my emails to be read as rude. I realize now that paring down my use of exclamation points doesn’t imply that I’m being grumpy. Instead of over-emoting to broadcast a positive tone, I can assume the person I’m writing to is extending me goodwill (as I am to them). I still use at least one exclamation mark per email, but professional communications usually don’t necessitate any more than that.
For your grammar, make sure to double check for common mistakes that can be easily avoided with a once-over. You are smart, so make sure your words communicate that you know what you’re talking about and how to talk about it.
While it’s not possible to cover every type of email situation, always err on the side of being polite. Treat emailing someone with the same care you’d take having an in-person conversation with them: keep them on-topic, be considerate with your words, and never assume your time is worth more than that of another. Prioritize your emails in order of urgency.
Even if I receive messages that I don’t have the time or brainpower to respond to for a few days, I try to send a preliminary response letting the sender know that I received their note and will follow-up later. Setting a deadline for when I’ll respond holds me accountable and allows for some breathing space when the number of emails in my inbox ticks upward.
Sending emails of any sort can seem like a tedious task in an age of emojis and gifs, but it’s just another part of growing up. Address others with confidence and courtesy, and be thoughtful and careful in what you write, and you’ll leave a sharp, professional impression.