Email Etiquette for Responsible Adults

Email stresses me out, as I’ve written before. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to say via email—and it’s really easy to say the wrong thing. Email can be written too seriously or too casually. And it’s very easy for email to slip through the cracks and—oops! It’s been 7 days and you didn’t reply to that super important email.

I spend a lot of time answering emails for both my work and personal life. I’ve found myself following a few rules over the last few years. Here they are—my simple email etiquette rules for responsible adults. 

1. Keep it Short

You get an email. You need to answer it. You have so much to say. You start typing—and keep typing… and keep typing… and keep typing. 

You’ve gone into overload. In your attempt to remain thorough, you’ve sent a novel in reply. And girl, ain’t nobody got time for a novel in their email!

This is my rule: I write 1 paragraph per email. That’s it! Some people set a 3 sentence maximum (and as a very, um, verbose person, I just can’t). I set my maximum at a paragraph of 5-8 sentences. That’s it: say what you need to say and sign off. If they need more details, they can ask you to clarify. 

2. Don’t reply in the heat of the moment. 

You’ve been working on an important project and you finally submit it, dust off your hands, and think—“ahh, a job well done.” And then, the email comes back. This needs changed, this needs fixed, this is all wrong, what were you thinking? 

You hit reply and start typing, in the heat of the moment, a reply that isn’t, well, very polite. You fire it off and immediately regret it. They’re the client; you’re not. Oops. 

If you get an email filled with criticism or rejection or just plain annoyance—let it rest. Flag it, put it in a folder, and return to it in 24 hours or however long you need to chill out. 

3. However, reply to anything important within 24 hours. 

Even if you’re mad about it, try to reply within 24 hours. That might be a full reply or it might be, “Just letting you know I saw this email, but I am swamped right now and will get to it Friday!” Just a note to let them know you’ll get back to them. 

It’s so easy to let mailboxes get stuffed full and to find yourself replying to email after 4 or 5 days of it languishing in your inbox. No matter how busy you are, think of that from the opposite side; say you sent an important email to someone you’re working with and they just didn’t reply for 5 days! You know how that feels? It feels crappy. 

4. Don’t reply-all to huge email chains. 

Please. Just don’t. 

Got an email etiquette tip you follow? Share with me on Twitter!

I'm Overwhelmed by Email

If you were to steal my phone from me (which, please don't--all I have are 3,000+ photos of Forrest on there), you'd find something really shocking: when you get it unlocked, my little Mail button will show over 1,000 unread emails. That shockingly large red notification dot will stare at you, possibly the same way it stares at me. 

They aren't pressing emails. Mostly. They're notification emails, sale emails, and marketing emails. If my mom emails me, or a freelance writing client emails me, I answer right away (...most of the time). 

I occasionally set goals to delete (and unsubscribe to) unnecessary emails every evening. But after one evening, I forget or lose focus or just get tired of doing it. Then, two weeks later, I realize I have over 1,000 unread emails again. 

I find email totally overwhelming. It used to be my preferred method of communication, but now, it stresses me out as much as face-to-face meetings. The sales and marketing emails are the worst: I simultaneously want everything they're trying to sell me (baby clothes! make up! underwear!) and am repulsed by their methods (those emojis in the subject line aren't fooling me, American Eagle!). 

I'm trying to be better about clearing out my email and getting on top of it--and not letting it stack up like that. My ultimate goal? Have under 10 unread emails at any given time. We'll see how that goes.