The Agonizing Art of Email Etiquette

It's so easy for your meaning to get lost in translation when corresponding electronically. The good news is, you don't need LOLs or emoticons to fix the problem

Written by Deborah Aarts

Dear readers;


My dearest PROFITguide.com readers;


Email is a wonderful tool, isn’t it? It’s quick. It’s cheap (just think of what you used to spend on stamps). If you’re like me, your inbox often doubles as a surrogate brain, serving as much as a to-do list, calendar and archive as it does a communications medium.

For these and other reasons, email is insanely popular. So popular, in fact, that I’d be willing to bet my phone book that the average employee in most organizations has emailed far more people than she’s spoken with in the past year.

But email has its problems. And the biggest one is tone. Linguistic nuance and tenor and are too often misinterpreted or lost completely on-screen, especially when the writer has a cavalier attitude towards such things as punctuation (You know??!! The kind of person who makes everything sound like an emergency!!!!) and/or capitalization (LIKE THE SHOUTER WHO COMES ACROSS SUPER-ANGRY or the lover of ™£™¥™¦ ŠþΞ©Î¹ˆ‚£ ¢hA®@¢€ ÎµR§ ™£™¥™¦ or the SpoRAdic caPiTalizER whO’S tRyinG to bE QuirKY but SeeMS inSTEAd liKe A SeRIal kiLler). Note: if you’re not a 15-year-old girl, there is absolutely no excuse for using the latter.

If you’re not a 15-year-old girl, there is absolutely no excuse for using spORraDic cAPitaLizATioN.

In an effort to clear things up, many people opt to pepper their emails with abbreviations (the likes of LOL and WTF) and emoticons. Which is fine when communicating with friends and/or close colleagues—but perhaps less so when dealing with a client, supplier or other professional acquaintance.

This video from Mississauga, Ont-based webcomic producer Domics captures the struggle perfectly:

“When people use email as a medium to contact me,” the video’s narrator says, “I feel the need to have more discretion, because I see email as ‘electronic mail.’ You wouldn’t put LOLs or emoticons in the mail.

“On the one hand, I feel the need to sound professional, especially if its business-related. But on the other, I don’t want to seem boring or uninterested in the topic.”

As the video so amusingly depicts, when you start to really think about this stuff, coming up with appropriate salutations, punctuation and overall tone can be an agonizing process. And that can make writing a simple email a lengthy, laborious process—something contrary to the entire purpose of the medium.

So, what should you do? Should you devote a lot of time fretting about the style and tone of your own emails? Or should you just dash off whatever comes to mind first, regardless of how it might be interpreted?

And what about your staff? It’s not just text-addicted Millennials that write terrible emails; I’m willing to bet that a close examination would reveal rude, confusing and unprofessional notes from offenders of all ages and at all levels of your org chart.

One quick and easy fix to these issues is to create (and adhere to) some basic email protocols for your company. Something as simple as “no emoticons in new client correspondence” or “no one-word replies” (or, as some have done, “no ‘reply-alls’ allowed”) can greatly improve the professionalism and clarity of your communications. Explain to your staff why well-written emails are important (many may be genuinely unaware of their sins) and offer them basic training in business writing, if needed. (While you’re at it, it can’t hurt to brush up on the 7 elements of a perfect email or the basic rules of email mastery.)

I’m not talking about becoming a grammar Nazi or enforcing formal letter-writing conventions—just raising the bar a bit so that email becomes the clear, professional and effective communications tool it’s supposed to be.


With warmest regards,

Sincerely (for real),


Deborah Aarts is an award-winning senior editor at PROFIT Magazine. Her coverage of opportunities and challenges for Canada’s entrepreneurial innovators covers HR, leadership, sales and international trade, among other topics.

More columns by Deborah Aarts

What are your biggest email pet peeves? How much does good email communication matter to you? Does it bother you if your staff uses emoticons, incorrect punctuation or one-word replies? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com