We spend a significant part of our workday in our email inboxes. In 2022, the average office worker receives approximately 32 emails a day on top of instant messages, conferences, and one-on-one phone calls, and drafting their own emails.
That’s a lot of communication.
When you feel overwhelmed with constant messages, you may feel tempted to throw email etiquette out the window in your replies. What can one bad email do to your career, anyway?
But you know that good workplace communication is an essential pillar of any business. Solid communication constructs solid connections that improve emotional well-being and boost productivity.
In this guide, we’ll review the importance of following proper email etiquette rules. Then, we’ll break down situations where crafting formal emails or informal messages, why they’re critical to your professional relationships and career growth, and offer formatting and email etiquette tips and templates.
What is the difference between formal and informal emails?
The difference between formal and informal emails is the recipient. You likely write formal emails to colleagues, co-workers, managers, or clients with polite, professional language and use the best email etiquette possible. Informal emails go to friends and family with laid-back language, personal anecdotes, and few structure or formatting requirements.
Keeping track of what makes an email formal isn’t always intuitive. Here are a few general email etiquette rules to remember when crafting an informal or formal email.
A formal email is for professional correspondence sent to someone we don’t know personally or a colleague or client with whom we have a business relationship or are writing for the first time. A business email always requires good email etiquette, appropriate formatting and template styles, and the right tone.
Here are four characteristics of a formal email:
- Structure: Respecting the recipient’s time is critical to business email etiquette. A formal email should efficiently summarize information and let the receiver understand the reason for your email quickly and clearly.
An appropriate format includes:
- Clear subject line
- Salutation and email greeting
- Brief email body
- Sign off
- Tone: The language of formal emails should be respectful, professional, and polite. Think about how you would deliver a presentation to a client or discuss a challenge with a manager. The same tone should apply to your email communication.
- Setting: Formal emails are used for business and professional purposes. Examples include:
- Cold-emailing a potential client
- Requesting a meeting with a manager
- Following up on a job offer
- Asking for help from a college professor
4. Etiquette: Our online communication is an extension of ourselves and tells our recipient what to expect from a continued working relationship. Instead of handshakes, eye contact, facial expressions, and body language that we observe in face-to-face meetings, formal emails require phrasing that communicates professionalism. You should avoid using emojis, exclamation points, or abbreviations the recipient may be unfamiliar with.
An informal email is used for personal correspondence sent to those we have a friendly relationship with, like friends and family. A personal email is written with simple and casual language and can use a playful or personal tone. Unlike a professional email, an informal email has no format or templates to stick to.
A formal email template should follow these four basic rules:
- Structure: There’s no true structure to follow, as an informal email can be a quick response without a greeting or a long email that meanders.
- Tone: The language of an informal email is casual and may include jokes, images, and sharing of personal information.
- Setting: Informal emails are used for personal reasons. Examples include:
- Inviting a friend to a birthday party
- Announcing a new move to a family member
- Catching up with an old friend
4. Etiquette: Informal emails don’t have specific etiquette to follow — it’s entirely dependent on the type of relationship you have with the recipient.
What is email etiquette, and why is it so important?
Email etiquette is a set of principles that guide appropriate business communication when writing to potential and existing clients, business partners, co-workers, managers, and acquaintances in your professional network.
Solid communication skills help you thrive in your professional growth. Writing with respect, clarity, and efficiency builds better connections across your team and avoids miscommunications that are both counterproductive and reflect poorly on you and your organization.
Here are four professional benefits of learning proper email etiquette:
- Establishes professionalism. The way you write and communicate is a representation of how you work. Our communication style sets expectations about what it will be like to work with us. The right tone, proper structure, and appropriate language tell your reader that you’re trustworthy, serious, and professional.
- Improves communication. Healthy communication is key to building solid relationships and team dynamics. Communicating clearly, respectfully, and efficiently will develop better relationships with managers, co-workers, or employees and can improve collaboration, connection, retention, and creativity.
- Saves time. Learning professional email writing will stop writer’s block by teaching you what to say. Less time spent staring blankly at an email means more time spent on other tasks.
- Avoid misunderstandings. Online communications go against our nature. Humans depend on non-verbal cues to understand the other person’s demeanor and intentions. Writing with the correct language and tone avoids interpersonal misunderstandings that strain professional relationships.
15 rules of email etiquette
1. Use an appropriate salutation
It’s important to know how to start an email professionally. Start the email with the correct salutation, which will change depending on your relationship with the recipient. You don’t need to get creative. The main salutations, “Hi” and “Hello” are less formal, or you can choose the more traditional “Dear”:
If you’re writing directly to a colleague or someone you have a friendly professional relationship with, you can start with the following, start with “Hello” or “Hi.” Someone you‘ve never met or have a formal professional relationship with, like a hiring manager or a new or potential client, should be greeted with “Dear.”
2. Don’t misidentify or misgender
“Dear Sir,” “Dear Madam,” “Dear Mr.” or “Dear Mrs.” might unintentionally misgender and offend someone. If you don’t know how someone prefers to be addressed, stay gender-neutral and use their first or full name. Neutral greetings like “Hey there,” “Hey folks,” or “Hey again” also avoids assumptions of gender.
3. Add a professional greeting
Getting straight to the point doesn’t mean you shouldn’t greet someone. Keep it simple. Here are a few acceptable greetings:
- I hope this email finds you well.
- How are you?
4. Use a professional email address
Having a professional email address is a show of professionalism and seriousness. If you’re representing a business, always use your company email. If you’re a freelancer or contractor without a professional website, create a Gmail with your full name. Leave the nicknames for informal emails.
If you forward all your correspondence to one inbox, ensure you’re sending messages from the correct email.
5. Reply to all of your emails
If someone took the time to write to you, be respectful and follow up with an answer. Responsiveness should be a top priority. Set aside time to go through emails at the beginning and end of your day. Not responding isn’t just disrespectful — it will likely make people perceive you as unreliable and unprofessional.
6. Let people know when you’re unavailable
If you’re going to be away for a vacation, create an out-of-office auto-reply to manage people’s expectations. They won’t think you’re ignoring their emails or feel frustrated when they don’t hear from you. Keep it brief:
- Hi! I’ll be out-of-office from [start date to end date]. If you have an urgency, please get in touch with my colleague at [email address]. Thank you.
7. Think twice before hitting “reply all”
Pay special attention to email threads. When you use the “reply all” button, you might send the email to a recipient who is no longer involved or wants to be left out of the correspondence. Double-check who you’re replying to before hitting send.
8. Blind carbon copy is your best friend
If you’re writing a new email to many recipients, using the blind carbon copy, or bcc, the feature is best. Adding email addresses in the bcc field makes those addresses invisible to the other recipients. This both respects your recipients’ privacy and avoids unwanted email threads when someone hits “reply all.”
9. Use appropriate punctuation
Relying on lots of em dashes, semi-colons, or parenthesis to explain a situation indicates that your email is better suited for a phone call or meeting. Don’t overuse unnecessary punctuation. Exclamation points are appropriate for specific situations like:
- Announcing exciting news
- Congratulating someone
- Sharing the success of a challenging project
For day-to-day conversation, stick to the tried and true period and remember to keep it brief.
10. Avoid unnecessary embellishments
Choose a font that’s easy to read and avoid unnecessary embellishments like memes, gifs, and emojis. They’ll just distract from your point.
11. Shorten URLs and hyperlink
Copying and pasting an entire link looks sloppy and demonstrates a lack of attention to detail. Always shorten URLs or hyperlinks over text.
12. Let people know you’re sending an attachment
If you need to include a document, make sure that you mention to your recipient that you’re sending an attachment and double-check that it works properly. If you’re sending a large file through a third-party platform, confirm that the recipient received a notification.
Proofread to ensure that your message is clear, concise, and polite. Double-check for typos and grammar errors, and always run the spell-check feature. If you don’t have professional copy-editing skills, download a grammar app to make sure you have crossed your digital t’s and dotted your i’s.
14. Spell the recipient’s name correctly
15. Use an email signature
A signature block is a valuable space to provide additional information about yourself and your brand. A work-appropriate email signature might include the following information about you:
- Full name
- Company name with a hyperlink to the company website
- Additional contact information, such as a phone number
Start emailing with confidence
Communication skills are among the most important skills you can learn. As remote work remains present and online communication grows, taking the time to build better-written communication habits will help you nurture respectful relationships, save time, and stay productive.
Think your emails through, stay concise, and always double-check your writing. You’ll make clearing the 32 emails in your inbox the easiest part of your day.