Top 5 e-mail mistakes

I’ve recently read an article on Yahoo! about the top 10 e-mail mistakes people make. Some resonated, some I found silly, but since I’m not one to randomly comment on news sites unless the debate is serious and deeply affecting me, what better place to voice my own opinion than my recently reborn blog. So here are the 5 mistakes I consider the gravest when using e-mail.

(Note: they concern both the content and the format of the e-mails).

1. No salutation

In fact, there are many mistakes about salutation, like writing e-mail to someone you don’t know and using Hi [insert first name] instead of the traditional, and polite Dear Sir or Dear Ms. XYX, etc. I’m not an old fuddyduddy, but respect is the cornerstone of any business relationship, and approaching someone so informally may offend. But if the above can be a matter for the debate, but the “no salutation” situation is indefensible. Anytime I receive an e-mail that starts with the subject matter without so much as a “Hi”, I cringe. This most often happens with coworkers, who mistake rudeness for efficiency. Let me say this loudly. THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR NOT SAYING HELLO OR HI IN AN EMAIL . The few seconds it takes to write the two letters are a matter of basic social skills, and if you don’t do it, it makes me wonder whether you’re at all adept in communication, and I shudder to think you would be doing the same to customers or suppliers.  A case can be made that in a string of communications between you and someone throughout the day, only the first one needs to have a salutation, and I will accept that argument, with a small modification: a new subject, begetting a  new thread of e-mails, would ideally start with a new salutation.

2. Burying matter in a string of forwards

There is nothing more annoying than a forwarded e-mail that says only: see the below, and when scrolling down you find a  string of forwards from various people with a conversation that may or may not make sense to you. People I worked with sometimes gave assignments like that, or returned feedback from multiple sources on one issue. In the case of assignments, it often leaves you baffled as to what you are supposed to do, and when its feedback, it lacks any structure and consistency whatsoever and makes it hard to implement. Just as some people’s jobs are to do the practical work, other people’s jobs is to assign, supervise and respond to work done. If you just forward e-mails, you’re not doing your job. Background is fine, but what I expect people to do is synthesize the information and clearly direct a course of action. The same for e-mails from colleagues or subordinates. Synthesize, and recommend your solution or your preference, or state your question. If you just report on what someone said, you can still send me just en excerpt, preceded by a salutation, and that’s it.

3. Irrelevant subject lines (or worse, no subject lines)

I receive an average of 250-300 e-mails a day, some relevant, some not, some actionable, and some simply informative, but it is hard to prioritize them if the subjects are all jumbled. I disagree with e-mails that cover multiple subjects, as it is hard to keep issues organized (exceptions being  task assignments,  status reports or similar), but if you have to use them, make sure the subject covers all the matters you referred to in the body of the e-mail, otherwise it will be extremely hard for me to find an e-mail referring to that particular matter later on. If, as part of a thread, the subject changes or evolves, please note the new subject in the appropriate field in your message, for the same issue tracking reason. If you feel the need to conserve the  original thread title, so people can see the subjects are somehow interrelated you can simply add, in parenthesis (Was XYZ). This makes for more efficient management of the inbox, and of course for easier follow-up.

4. Calling to say you’ve sent an e-mail

I used to literally fume when this happened. The point of e-mail is that it is fast, it allows for a quick overview of issues, and is non-disruptive, if properly managed. If you call to signal you’ve sent the e-mail, it kind of defeats the purpose. Additionally, it gives me no time to read and respond. Now I understand that in certain circumstances, when the issue is urgent and you have no guarantee that the person is at their desk or if, as part of their time management, they read e-mails at predetermined times, you may be compelled to call. Sadly, this happens more often than the situation calls for. If people don’t answer within a reasonable time (48 hours the gurus say, I hold with the next day), they you can call, but anything under that is just plain rude, and very disruptive to the person’s work. This is especially true in the case of emails that require further action on behalf of the recipient, action that will take time. In such cases, I recommend an acknowledgement response within 24 hours, with a deadline on when the full response may reasonably be expected. If I am at the computer reading e-mail outside of office hours (as you can see if you demand a delivery / read receipt) it does not follow that your e-mail will be my priority, so please don’t call or complain the next morning that I’ve seen it and not responded. People, especially managers, spend a lot of time at work or working in general after office hours for strategic issues or just to catch up on everything that needs to be done in peace and quiet, or to compensate for a day full of meetings, in which they were not able to handle time-sensitive issues. It is not an invitation to bother them, or to assume that you are entitled to a response before the reasonable 24 hour interval has passed. People who send e-mails outside of office hours and then call and e-mail the next morning as the day begins complaining about the lack of a response deserve special bad karma. And no, just because people have email on their phones nowadays, it does not mean they must respond to anyone and anything at all times. Mobile e-mail is there for convenience on the go, and quick info and response in emergency situations, but unless that is the case, don’t expect people to answer in their already scarce private time.

5. Mail only

I hate it when people don’t include some other means of contact in their e-mails but the e-mail address, and then vanish and don’t respond to your e-mail for days. Meanwhile, whatever issues they raised are in your unsolved pile, and time ticks away. The basic rule is to have more than one means of contact listed in your signature (and make sure to include it at the bottom of your e-mail) so in case of emergency (respecting the limitations at number 4) or if you’re simply not checking e-mail often enough, you can be contacted. This has happened to me with contestants that we had announce wins to, and could not manage to do so in time because they’d only provided e-mail addressed and then failed to check them for weeks, youth groups that wanted support that we could not contact to discuss conditions, again because they weren’t checking e-mail, people we set up meetings with and had some emergency or delay, and could not announce that we encountered problems. etc. it’s not a hard thing to do: E-MAIL + ONE MORE CONTACT POINT.


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Filed under Communication, Management thought

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