email etiquette: tips on email use

the following is a set of practical guidelines for anyone who uses email in the course of their work in higher education. a good email citizen sends emails that are effective and collegial in terms of content, and is cognizant of the differences between emails with a single recipient and those with multiple recipients. in this age of spam, email overload, and privacy concerns, it is just as important to know how to address your messages as it is what to say, as well as what not to say and reserve for means other than email.

most universities have standard email policies. for example, ucla’s email policies can be found here:

uc policy link (
ucla policy link (

as a good email citizen, you will want to use proper ‘netiquette’ and know how to send emails that convey only essential content to appropriate recipients. here’s how:

tips about email content

  1. don’t complain via email.
    1. the commonality of email has pushed traditional letter writing on paper to an elevated status. because one is more likely to complain via email, letters of complaint written on stationary and signed by hand are inevitably treated with greater importance.
    2. customer service managers regularly state that a signed letter of complaint is worth 100 phone calls. anyone can make a phone call in the heat of frustration, but those who take the time to articulate thoughtfully their complaints in a professional manner are taken far more seriously. because emails are considered less formal than written letters, they tend to be treated more like phone calls. therefore, do not complain via email, but rather use email to communicate information and send quick reminders to colleagues when appropriate.
  2. don’t compose lengthy emails in your email client.
    1. never compose a document in a client that you cannot regularly save. email clients are notorious for disappearing and lost content during composition. unlike many word processing apps that automatically save content while it is being composed, email clients often crash, messages are accidentally closed, or worse yet, the messages are accidentally sent without the message being complete, leaving the sender looking like he or she is not capable of sending a proper letter.
    2. for emails of some length, or that require more thought than is involved in simple communication, it is better to compose the email in a word processer, which possesses spell check, auto save, and a full array of formatting options, and then cutting and pasting the message in to an email for sending.
    3. this process prevents what many techies call premature e-jaculation, that is, the premature sending of emails before they are complete and proofread.
  3. don’t write too much in an email.
    1. no one likes to open an email and see an essay. when most employees see a lengthy email, they immediately skip to the next, smaller, manageable email and respond accordingly. employees tend to put off lengthy emails until last, meaning the lengthier your email, the lower priority it receives.
    2. reserve email for concise information. ask and answer questions briefly and to the point. don’t be reluctant to send a one-line email. if your question requires a lengthy email, think about making a phone call. it will save you time and will receive more attention from the recipient than a lengthy email. make full use of bold facing and colors to highlight the important items in your email, but AVOID USING ALL CAPS, which people tend to interpret as screaming.
      • (you can always use no caps at all when writing electronically; it’s hip, distinctive, very relaxed and informal (which is popular on the west coast among those who distinguish between formal academic writing, personal electronic correspondence, and blogs), makes up for german capitalizing every single noun, is a tribute to early internet programming pioneers who didn’t use caps (check your url and your email address), and saves you the effort of having to reach all the way over to the shift key every sentence.)
    3. remember: you are competing for the recipient’s attention in a full inbox. shorter is sweeter when emailing.
  4. think before sending.
    1. many have heard of ‘drunk dialing’ – the practice of making a phone call to another individual that under normal circumstances (and usually much sober, next-day reflection) should not have been made. the same is true for email.
    2. you don’t have to send every email you write. often, the mere process of articulating your feelings through words written in a letter is all the release one needs to vent frustration. wait a half hour and re-read your email. is that really what you want to say? will this email be used against you down the road? in court? if the email is still worthy of sending after some sober reflection, send away.

tips about how to address your email

  1. don’t address the email until the very end.
    1. anyone who has accidentally sent an email before it is complete has experienced the frustration of having to email the original recipient yet again, apologizing for looking like a luddite or worse yet, a dumbass, before once again emailing with the original intended email.
    2. to guard against this, try not addressing the email until the email is proofread and ready to send. perhaps cut-and-paste the intended email address in the body of the letter at the top. this way, should you accidentally click ‘send’ or type a combination of keys that sends the email, the email will not be sent, but will return an error asking for a destination email address. this simple trick can save you much potential embarrassment.
  2. learn to use the bcc feature.
    1. the blind carbon copy, or ‘bcc’ feature is not just for tattling on your coworkers by secretly showing your email to a colleague. the bcc feature can be very handy when sending distribution emails to a large number of people.
    2. the bcc feature allows you to send the same email to multiple recipients, but each recipient only sees their address in the ‘to’ field and cannot see the other recipients’ addresses.
    3. it is important to write emails that are to be sent to bcc recipients in a generic manner so that each recipient assumes the email is written to him or her specifically (that is, unless you want the letter to appear as a form letter intended for many people. features include addressing the email with ‘all,’ or ‘dear applicant.’)
    4. a few years ago, a department search committee chairperson at a university that shall remain unnamed sent rejection letters via email. but, rather than loading the 125 rejected recipients’ email addresses into the bcc field, the chairperson listed them all in the cc field, meaning every recipient could see the emails of the other rejected candidates. remembering to use the bcc field is a discreet way to send one email to many people.
  3. use distribution lists
    1. most universities make extensive use of dedicated distribution lists, which allow an employee to join a list and receive emails from an authorized sender on a specific topic. the benefit is that the ‘from’ field clearly states the sender’s distribution list, which can be filtered or read based upon the desire to follow messages from the sender. one additional benefit is that the recipient’s email address in not lumped into a massive list of email addresses in the ‘to’ or ‘cc’ field, meaning other recipients cannot see your email address and instantly be reminded, say, that you owe them money of a reply to an earlier email.

one last thing

  1. anonymous emailing
    1. dont email anonymously. ever! first, it’s cowardly. second, there is no such thing as anonymity online! if someone wants to, and has the patience and the resources, one can find out who you are and what you’re doing.
    2. never, ever, ever, ever take out an email address in someone else’s name, pretend to be them, and confess to made up crimes the person didn’t commit. if you do, you could end up under arrest and on trial in new york for identity theft, criminal impersonation, forgery, aggravated harassment, and unauthorized use of a computer.

these email tips will help you be an effective emailer. you will communicate your message more effectively, and will do so with a professional etiquette. and you’ll stay out of jail.

(a simplified version of the above is located at the ucla center for digital humanities (cdh) blog here.)

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