Can you be too polite with your emails?

A curious effect of the internet is that we communicate in business through writing more than ever. Twenty-five years ago, I’m sure I would telephone (or walk to speak to) people 10-20 times a day at work. Now it’s down to a handful, yet I might send 20-30 emails. So I’m in communication with people more often, but through the more arduous medium of writing. This might not be so bad if we were brief in our written correspondence. Few of us are, however. We’re almost embarrassed to send a two-line email, as if it might be considered rude. So what are the top tips for keeping business emails efficient to write and to read, without seeming impolite?

Dont agonise over the subject line. If you’re sending out a marketing email, to people who don’t know you personally, the subject line is critical. I’ve discussed techniques here many times. But for a colleague, or customer, the “From” field is the one on which they’ll base their decision to open the email or not. In emails to people I correspond with regularly, I find I’m tending to write my email, then just copy and paste the first few words as the subject line. This seems to work perfectly well.

Set yourself a length limit. In many cases, if the email needs to be more than a few lines, it’s probably some sort of proposal or report, and ought really to be composed in Word or something and presented as a formal attached document. If you’re a regular texter or tweeter, you’ll be quite comfortable with brevity, so just stay in that way of thinking with emails. People will appreciate it.

Keep the topics to a minimum, preferably one. If you have three quite separate questions to ask someone, consider putting them in separate emails. It might seem inefficient to do that, but it’s very hard to respond briefly to three different points in a single reply. If someone does this to me, I usually answer their questions with separate emails, to avoid having to repeat the questions back to them.

Ask yourself if an email is the appropriate form of communication. It drives me crazy how some people send text messages to ask a pressing question (yes, Mrs R, I’m thinking of you). The same applies to email. It’s inefficient (you don’t know if the recipient has received or read the message) and it forces them to reply at their effort and expense. Don’t pretend you’re doing it to avoid interrupting them. Make a phone call. They’re quite capable of ignoring it if they’re busy. If you need a question answered, a phone call is usually more considerate.

Don’t be polite to the point of being annoying. Responding with a thank you is fine, if only to assure the sender that you got their message. Thanking them for their own thank-you is taking things too far.

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