Email Etiquette or the Lack Thereof

Recent research shows that the average American office worker spends 2 hours a day reading and responding to email (some people I know would say that they spend their whole day doing nothing other than email). Assuming this statistic is right and that each person works an 8-hour day, email consumes 25 percent of that worker’s time. Unless that person’s job description is reading and writing emails it means that they only have 6 hours left in a day to do their actual work. For a moment, leaving aside the issues of spam, how much of this is just our own creation?

I am old enough to remember the days before email when companies and businesses communicated via  written letter. There were whole schools of thought and books on letter writing etiquette. A company or individual was often judged on how well and courteously their letter was framed. Whether that letter was stamped and mailed or just faxed to someone, it was a deliberate means of communication. I can’t imagine anybody in those days having to spend 25 percent of their business day reading mail unless they were somehow involved with the mail room. We now (and rightly so) label the stamped envelope as snail mail and apart from the government, junk mailers and utilities, I really don’t know anyone who sends snail mail letters any more.

When email was invented (and I still remember sending early emails from IBM mainframes), the objective was for it to be an electronic replacement of regular mail. The same standards of mail applied – both the deliberateness and courtesy. Like any letter, you addressed the mail to the recipient(s), you started with a salutation like Dear John, you had a subject, the body of the mail in proper English and finally a polite sign off. I recall the frequent discussions as to when you used Yours Sincerely or Yours Truly or Yours Faithfully. Emails were well thought out and carefully worded to be complete and more importantly, needed.

Living in the traffic gridlocked D.C. area, I am told that if you build a new expanded highway the traffic will appear and fill it up quickly. With the advent of electronic mail, which also happened to be free of charge, easy to use and quick to send, the same phenomenon happened. This fast and cheap way of communication meant that the volume of email traffic exploded exponentially. Needless to say, this fast and easy means of communication has enabled better communication and delivered business benefits.

However, like the brand new highway now gridlocked with traffic, email has become a highly abused, self-defeating, time wasting, bandwidth clogging, efficiency destroying phenomenon. Let’s review some of the reasons why.

It is so easy to send an email that anybody in an organization will blast out an email to a dozen colleagues without pondering its importance or what they are communicating.

Email etiquette seems to be going the way of the dinosaurs. Now they not only waste my time but many emails seem to start in mid–thought and often-times completely forget the salutation, subject, message and ending.

When you don’t understand this random mid-thought email, you have to then send one back trying to figure out what the other person is saying. Now 12 more colleagues waste their time reading and deciphering it. Some will of course reply to everyone with questions or further musings.

If there are multiple people involved this soon becomes an electronic cacophony like a fish market

As a small business man I get close to 1,000 emails a day. About 400 are spam and caught by our filters. Of the remaining 600, barely a dozen emails are properly constructed so they can be completely understood without multiple clarifications. If we now hear that the average American office worker spends 25 percent of their time on email, it will soon be 50 percent. This would be a great way to debilitate the economy, we don’t need the Chinese.

Here is my prescription to resolve some of these issues (I train everyone who works for me to practice this theme).

  • Spend the time to write an email correctly and completely. It is a means of communication.
  • Compose it like they used to write on paper. Think your thoughts out and lay them out clearly. You owe it to the other 12 recipients you are going to hit soon.
  • Use etiquette. Start with the name(s) of the person(s). If you don’t want to Dear them, that’s fine. When we email, let’s be polite.
  • Write a good, clear email and sign off at the end at least with a thanks (for reading your stuff).
  • We still nod to each other, shake hands, smile and interact socially. That is etiquette. Let’s practice it electronically and be courteous.
  • Some interactions don’t need to be email. Use other forms like instant messaging to ask quick questions or check on something, perhaps even the old fashioned phone call.

Many subjects can be sorted out by faster and simpler communications such as Instant Messaging (IM) and Social Media tools. At my company, Brillient, I manage my extended team members at different client locations using IM, social media tools and the occasional text message. I don’t need any more emails than what I get.

I had a client who once told me that he would never read a resume if it didn’t come to him with a cover letter. If a book is judged by its cover, you are judged by how you communicate. In today’s world of instant (sometimes thoughtless) communication, let’s bring some value and grace to the communication. You owe it as much to the recipients as to yourself.