Email is a useful tool which quickly (and tragically) overwhelms and beats its users into submission. Why? Because we habitually break The Ten Commandments of Email. For shame.
The Ten Commandments are here to protect us — and our user — from virtual wrath.
1. Thou shalt use messaging
Intra-office email — even intra-project email — can often be switched out for instant messaging (IM). Whether or not we’re in the same building is less a concern than how we’re using the email to communicate. Is it as a document that contains lengthy and necessary content? Or is it a quick back-and-forth exchange?
Email makes for a poor system for the quick back-and-forth exchange. We can’t treat email like it’s an instant message system with the expectation of immediate response, and send more emails when we don’t get that. Not everyone is set up, nor even desires, to respond immediately to email. Use IM because of what it is: instant, and messages. IM conversations are more conversational and not broken up by the more structured or formal email system. IM’s can be saved and archived if that is a concern due to laws or company policy. Choking up the inbox of someone else through quick back-and-forth conversation while in the heat of a project is a definite no-no. It’s better to have a cohesive chat session to save than 120 threaded emails with “did you get it?” or “is this right?” as the body. We need to decide if it is a chat we are having, or if it is email worthy. Use email for its strengths.
Email is not IM.
2. Thou shalt reconsider send or reply to all
If only one person needs to see it, send it to one person. And, conversely, if everyone needs to be in on the return message, use reply all. Otherwise, save us the hassle. Really, really determine if everyone needs this reply. This means you will actually have to stop and think about the message of the email and who needs to deal with it. And, if the only response back is something like “ok, thanks” or “yep”, do all 20 people need to hear it? If everyone chimes in with that nonsense, it makes a lot of email to sift through. Plus, without carefully looking at who is in the email, we run the risk of replying to someone we hadn’t planned on.
Avoid adding to the email burden, even if everyone else refuses.
3. Thou shalt not abuse old emails
Old emails are to be deleted, or sorted and archived.
Grabbing old emails for the sole reason of a mismanaged address book and a need to grab the recipients off an old email is a terrible idea. If we insist on doing that, then we must change the subject and remove all of the FWD: and RE: from the subject line. People who are using threaded email don’t really enjoy getting an old or archived thread pulled up just because we used an old email and left all the old subject line and content. It means they have a thread that they either have to sort through and delete messages one at a time, or accept that the thread isn’t cohesive. It’s basically the same as a guy coming up to us at a party and interrupting our conversation with friends by doing a clown impression. Plus, there’s a good chance our email will get lost in the shuffle.
Start fresh, or clear out old subject and content.
4. Thou shalt consider Reader’s Digest
Perhaps, if there are multiple things to say to a person through the day, it would be better to condense them into one or two emails. This is a serious consideration. Firing off 25 emails whenever a thought pops into our head means we’re basically treating our recipient as a filing cabinet or a virtual notepad where we jot random ideas. We leave it up to them to organize our thoughts and extract what needs to be done. We are to do the organizing ourselves, and send an email only if we have collected what’s necessary and what needs to be done. Condense all the crazy thoughts for our reader.
Our email recipient isn’t a translator or filing cabinet.
5. Thou shalt not extravagantly sign
It is not at all delightful to receive emails that contain graphics in the signature. Depending on how they were integrated and what email system the recipient is using, they either come through just fine, come through with ugly blank placeholders and the option to “display graphics”, or as an attachment. Few things are more annoying that thinking an important document is attached only to get an email signature graphic.
Sign emails with pertinent text only, including a name and contact information. That’s it.
6. Thou shalt forward with kindness
We must avoid forwarding an email with no other setup or preparation for the recipient than “FYI” or “see below”. How appreciative a busy person is to receive a forwarded email that a) is actually useful, and b) the sender edited out all of the excess (signatures from previous senders, unnecessary information, forwarding symbology). The recipient only has to deal with a brief and appropriate preface for why the email is being sent, why it matters to them, and the content contained within. It doesn’t mean the previous senders’ emails need to be removed; it might be necessary to see who sent what to whom and when.
Only forward what is necessary, and then clean up the email before forwarding.
7. Thou shalt respect the BCC
Being BCC’d on an email has its uses. Just be sure we get in the habit of looking to see if that’s the case or not before replying to the email. If we were BCC’d, it means the sender wanted us in on the conversation, but didn’t want the rest to know that we were in on it. Chiming in with your opinion is sort of unhelpful and puts the sender in an awkward position.
With a BCC, no one wants our opinion. We’re silent observers and that’s all.
8. Thou shalt understand the 24-hour clock
It would be nice if everyone took the health gurus advice and didn’t keep their phones by their bed, or if everyone knew how to silence everything but the alarm clock function, but the reality is otherwise. With smartphones in high use, and people using their phones to check email as much as a computer, getting a beep at 2 a.m. might mean we’ve cleared out our workload for the day and are going to hit the sack, but the guy who has an early morning and whose phone just beeped right next to his head is groggily waking up.
Get all our emails ready to go at whatever hour of night, save them, and first thing in the morning of a normal business day, send them out.
9. Thou shalt not subject or abuse the email body
If the world were set up on a question-and-answer interface, it might seem logical to answer the questions in an email by answering directly after the question down in the body. Perhaps we think using a different color or style font is useful. (No. See next commandment.) A better solution is to reply fresh and new, including our reply not in the body of the old email, but in the new one. If need be, repeat the questions. Otherwise, take the time to write a good and succinct email that answers all questions without forcing the recipient to get a hunting license to locate the answers.
Related to the abuse of the email body is the abuse of the subject line. Our subject line is what people are using to process and organize email. No subject line, an overly long subject line, a vague subject line, or (worst of all) using the subject line as the actual email message are all no-nos. Be accurate, be concise, and help your recipient out.
10. Thou shalt be against diversity
Diversity is great but not in email. Do not attempt to use as many fonts, colors, and punctuation elements as possible. Using five question marks and an exclamation point to express that we’re really, really not sure about this very, very important question gets annoying and quickly desensitizes the recipient in future emails.
Give your recipient a visual break and avoid the visual assault.
Why does all of this matter? Because if we are notoriously known to break a good portion of The Ten Commandments of Email a high percentage of the time, we’ll find our emails get less response and faster trips to the garbage bin. We’ll be ignored and known to not be a respecter of other people’s time. We’re all busy, and it’s hard enough to stay on top of all the email coming in.
Thou shalt not break these commandments.