Word Nerd in the Workplace, Part I: Yes, This Stuff is Important

I’m guessing that for the majority of the people reading this, business emails aren’t something you think about too often. This could be because you never have to send them, never receive them, or both. For those of you who are in a position that requires communicating on a business level, this article will either have you nodding sullenly in agreement, or perhaps it’ll open your eyes to things that simply shouldn’t be done in business communications. Treat this as an informational rant, because really, that’s what it is.

This seems like an obvious statement, but emails evolved from letters. Letters had flow. They had consistency. They were, for the most part, written with care and consideration for their recipients. For whatever reason, when letters were thrown over for emails, a lot of that went out the window. This hits me almost every time I receive an email from someone in the office and, on really bad days, it makes me look around for something to squish.

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The first thing that I notice about emails, as I imagine is the case with everyone, is the subject line. A mind-boggling number of people will type messages (e.g. “Meeting in Room 503 postponed till 2pm”) into the subject line and leave the body of the email blank. I can understand why this would make sense to some, especially with shorter messages; it means that people don’t have to open the email to read the message, and therefore it saves time. Other people, however, will type up longer messages into the subject line only to discover that it won’t fit, so they’ll allow it to cut off and then continue on in the body of the email. This is lazy and makes the sender appear technologically incompetent. If you need to send a lengthy email, give it a brief but descriptive subject, like “Room 503 meeting postponed”, and offer a longer explanation or message in the body of the email. Everyone wins.

Once I actually start in on the body of the email, the salutation is the next thing to catch my eye. Most inter-office emails start with something like “Hi Victoria,” and then the message carries on below. Some people drop the ‘Hi’, which sounds more serious. (It doesn’t necessarily sound more professional, though.) If you’re more familiar and friendly with the recipients of the email (most emails are addressed to all the people in my department, for example), sometimes greetings like “Good morning, ladies!” are refreshing, and can even brighten someone’s day. On the flipside, one thing that really rankles me is when people leave out the salutation altogether on the first message they send to someone.

Now, keeping in mind what you’ve just read, in terms of how people communicate online, this is the most important rule: type as you would talk. You will usually come across more clearly and as more personable if you write as if you’re having a real-time, in-person conversation. (Note: This is not the same thing as saying “type whatever you think”. Self-censorship is extremely important.) If you think about emails in terms of how they would translate to a face-to-face interaction, leaving off a salutation in the first message comes across as rude. Imagine someone at work coming up to you, dropping a file on your desk, saying, “I need seven copies of this printed, I have a meeting in fifteen minutes, thanks”, and then walking away. That is essentially what happens when greetings are omitted from business emails. It’s rude and lazy, and it reflects poorly on the sender, which is never a good thing in the corporate world. It’s fine, however, to leave out the customary ‘hello’s in subsequent replies; after all, you don’t say “Hi, So-and-So” every time it’s your turn to speak, do you?

Once they start writing the email itself, there are a few traps that people fall into. The first is making the message too brief. Short messages are all well and good, but if you’re replying to someone and all you say in return is “okay”, that’s a problem. Getting text message replies that just say “k” is irritating, right? The same principle is at work here. Put some effort into your responses, even if all you say is something like, “Thank you for letting me know, I appreciate it!” or “My apologies. I’ll be sure to look into that.” It is also worth noting that exclamations and punctuation really go a long way in shorter messages. Sending an email to a client that says “Great, I’m looking forward to the meeting!” is much better than sending one that says “I’m looking forward to the meeting.” Use punctuation and exclamations that match the tone you want to set in your email. This goes back to typing as you would talk; if you’re excited about something, you usually don’t down-play it, and if you’re upset about something, you don’t typically make it sound like it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to humanity in the history of everything that’s ever existed.

The other trap is getting into the habit of writing responses that are so long that no one will bother reading them. (I often wonder if my articles ever get to that point. They probably do.) The “TL;DR” reaction can be applied to almost anything these days, including emails, so sometimes you just need to know when to stop talking. Unless they specifically ask (and are genuinely interested), don’t tell the recipient of your email everything that you did over the weekend, or why you’re upset that a deal didn’t go through. Details about your personal life shouldn’t be coming up in emails about the latest business merger. These messages also shouldn’t turn into novels. If you feel like doing a lot of writing, make it a piece of fiction that you work on at home, not something that you send to the vice president at your company’s head office. Keep your emails concise, relatively brief, and on topic.

Finally, the way you end an email can say a lot about you as well. Everyone who has worked in an office environment has received an email that ended with ‘thx’, and whenever I get one of those, it makes me grumble. The time it would have taken to write out ‘thanks’ instead of ‘thx’ must be really important to business executives; that one whole second can make or break a big business merger, right? I’ve actually received emails ending with ‘thxs’, which, to me, translates to ‘thankses’, which in turn makes me want to ask them if they’ve ever killed a cousin over a shiny bauble that he found in a river. (If that reference got past you, set a weekend aside to watch the Lord of the Rings films, or more time to read the books, and it’ll click. Eventually.)

As I’ll tell anyone if they ask for my opinion on the ‘unforgivables’ of online communication, ending emails with ‘thx’ or including other unnecessary abbreviations and acronyms is an affront to me. Using them in the first place is lazy, especially when there is no character limit that should be pressuring you to shorten things up. More than lazy, though, it’s a snub to the recipient. If I receive an email littered with shortened words and ending with ‘thx’, it says that the sender couldn’t be bothered to put time into writing a well-put-together message, and that tells me that the sender doesn’t think I’m worth the time it would take to write such a message. Seriously, this stuff is important. Take pride in it. If the message is to a client, a well-written email shows that you are a professional and that they are important to you. If it’s to a co-worker, it tells them that you respect them and their role in the company. If it’s to a manager or another higher-up, they’ll see that you defer to them (in a way) and that you take your position seriously.

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So there you go. Those are the technical things that you should keep in mind when emailing people on a professional level, especially when said people are not more intimately acquainted with you. What all of this boils down to is that professional communication is about showing respect to whomever the email, memo, fax or whathaveyou is being sent. If you’re looking to advance in the workplace, keeping that in mind can give you a great boost in terms of how your superiors and co-workers perceive you.

I’m working on a considerably shorter follow-up about the smaller things you should keep in mind when communicating on a professional level, so if this piece didn’t put you to sleep, maybe you should go and check that one out once it’s posted. Thank you for sticking with me through all of that, and as always, if you have any comments, I would love to read them!

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One Comment

  1. Ben
    Posted February 7, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    What you have listed basically covers the laundry list of complaints with business communications that I have every day. I am required to at least have a certain level of coherency and professionalism in all my communications (I demand it of myself) but it blows my mind that some people don’t get that, especially since this is something we’re paid to do. Doesn’t mean you have to be slavishly professional, just attentive to things like this. Anyway, excellent article as always. Looking forward to part 2 🙂

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