E-MAIL messages comprise the bulk of work correspondence, yet few of us bother to check out etiquette tips that can improve our communication.
Take the message someone recently sent me. It had a gigantic attachment that busted my e-mail quota and had to go straight to the trash bin.
He then sent me four separate messages containing large attachments, which I was to forward to another party, and which also clogged my inbox.
There is actually no right or wrong in this case but experts said it is a matter of courtesy.
To avoid clogging other people's inboxes or slowing down their incoming messages, you should not send huge attachments unless absolutely necessary.
If there is one piece of e-mail etiquette that all agree on, it is to not write in caps because this is considered yelling or shouting in cyberspace.
Few people do this but some messages can contain one or two words in caps.
Mr Stephen Tan, a trainer with the SMa Centre for Corporate Learning, said a word in caps or bold type may backfire as it may be interpreted wrongly and cause a reaction different to the one you expect.
'There are no emotions involved in e-mail messages. A writer may 'cap' or 'bold' the words 'please reply' as he is anxious or even begging the other party to reply. But the other party may see it as an order to reply so there may be an intentional delay.'
Or it may cause a rift in your relationship with colleagues or clients, he added.
This is not to say that caps are not allowed in e-mail messages. 'Depending on the situation, you can 'cap' or 'bold' one or two words in an e-mail message to highlight something, like an organisation's name, venue, time or telephone number,' he said.
Ms Lee Gek Ling, a senior lecturer from the National University of Singapore's Centre for English Language Communication, said one word in caps is acceptable if the e-mail is emphasising fun or for personal correspondence.
There are some other e-mail pet hates:
- writing in different fonts and sizes in one long message;
- not including a signature so the recipient has to search for your number and guess your designation;
- being wrongly copied in on an ongoing group conversation.
All of these can be easily avoided.
An e-mail message should be short and sweet whenever possible. Use white space to make it readable instead of cramming everything into one long paragraph.
Long messages can be a lot of work, which means they may be set aside and possibly forgotten.
Take note that the subject matters. A simple, clear and effective phrase ensures your e-mail gets picked out and read instead of seen as spam and discarded.
And you should copy in others only if necessary. Technical writer and trainer Atul Mathur said it is common to find people copying everyone in on their e-mail even if some of the recipients may not be connected to the issue being discussed. 'That's a sloppy way of communicating.'
A chief executive of a European firm has said that he never reads e-mail messages he has been copied in on just because his staff want to show him they are doing their job. It is a waste of his time.
Mr Tan noted: 'In practice, many people ignore such messages, particularly if they involve long-drawn-out conversations. It won't be a priority.'
Ms Lee said you should copy in people only for three reasons: to inform them of what is happening, to keep them in the loop if they need to follow up on a certain matter, and as a standard operating procedure, such as needing to update your secretary so she can do filing for you.
But hold off from doing that if you have not informed them that they are supposed to act on a certain matter, she said.
Copying them in so they suddenly find themselves having to do something or follow up on a certain case is 'inconsiderate and not respectful of them', she added.
'That's presumptuous and if they don't want to do it, you are forcing them to confront the other party. And not getting a response might be seen as rude on their part.'
Experts say everyone should spend some time on writing e-mail messages.
With the blurring of lines between work and personal communication, we must exercise caution in this area, said Mr Tan. While e-mail messages are a less intrusive yet effective way of communication, they are a lousy way of resolving conflicts or conveying bad news, he added.
Said Ms Lee: 'Instead of 'You made a mistake in my pay calculation', you should say, 'Has there been a mistake in my pay calculation?' Hone in on the topic or subject rather than the person's character.'