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Tone, professional image are the keys to e-mail etiquette

By Dave Jones on November 3, 2006 in University

Joke all you want in e-mails that you send from home to your friends. But at work at UC Davis, jokes are out and rules are in.

"E-mail is business communication, even though you are not speaking," employee development consultant Amy Irvine told 20 UC Davis employees during the university's recent E-Mail Etiquette class. "Save the jokes for the water cooler."

And, remember, because UC Davis is a public institution, all e-mails are public record. You heard that right: "Anything you write can end up in the newspaper the next day," said Irvine.

Your e-mails also can end up in other unintended places, like, your supervisor's computer. "There's this thing called the forward button," Irvine said — meaning that once you put something in writing in an e-mail and send it to someone else, you have no idea where it will end up.

Which brought her back to the topic at hand: E-mail at UC Davis is for business communication, and there is etiquette to be followed, a code of usage to ensure that "we are being cordial to one another," said Irvine, a UC Davis alum who has been teaching communication-related courses for more than 13 years. E-mail etiquette, she said, lends to our professional image, makes us efficient, and protects the university from liability.

To project a good professional image, she said, one of the most critical factors is tone — how your attitude comes across to the reader.

Tone is one of the hardest factors to master in e-mail etiquette, Irvine said. "I always think about music and the way it makes me feel."

The goal in business e-mails, she said, is to come across as respectful, friendly and approachable. You do not want to sound curt or demanding.

Another factor in professional image is proper grammar. That includes spelling — and remember, spell-check software is not foolproof, she said.

Efficiency involves keeping your e-mails brief and to the point, recognizing that co-workers have busy schedules and sometimes overflowing e-mail inboxes.

Irvine listed five reasons for e-mail communications in the university setting: inform, persuade, request, respond and celebrate. She said e-mailers should always ask themselves, Why am I writing this? — and stay focused.

Irvine suggested outlines for your e-mails, perhaps not outlines that you write down, but something that you keep in mind. For example, an e-mail should have an introduction, main points and supporting points, and a conclusion.

Another thing to ask yourself: What do I want to happen when I send this e-mail? In other words, what are your expectations? For example, you may need a policy explanation, or a "yes" or "no" on taking on a new assignment.

She suggested the use of paragraphs, as opposed to long, wide blocks of copy, to make for easier reading. And she said the use of bullets can highlight your points.

As for length, Irvine said she believes an e-mail is too long if the reader must scroll down the computer screen to get to the end. If you need to write something that long, consider putting it in document form and attaching it.

She described e-mail as a blessing and a curse: a blessing because it provides an almost instantaneous way to send a message, a curse because you often expect the recipient to respond to your e-mail as fast as you sent it. This is based on the assumption that the recipient was at his computer and saw the e-mail as soon as it came in.

On the other hand, the recipient has an obligation to reply quickly, when he or she sees the e-mail — even if to say, "Received your e-mail, and I plan to send a response tomorrow." That keeps the sender from wondering if you are ignoring him or her.

Irvine also reminded e-mailers to check their anger when responding to e-mails. "Don't change your professionalism because of what someone else has done," she said.

The best thing to do when an e-mail makes you angry? "Cool off," Irvine said, "before you respond." If you do write a quick response, save it in your drafts folder — then review the e-mail later. Chances are you will not send it at all, but at least you will have vented your anger.

The E-mail Etiquette class can be taken alone or as part of a series of four classes in Staff Development and Professional Services' Customer Service Certificate Series. The other components are Telephone Strategies: Managing Calls Effectively, Customer Service Strategies and Coping with Difficult People.

Carina Celesia Moore, director of Staff Development and Professional Services, said most people take E-Mail Etiquette for professional growth and to enhance their job performance.

"Simple reminders," like those offered in E-Mail Etiquette, "can lead to more effective communication," Moore said.

Learn more

More information is available from Staff Development and Professional Services: (530) 752-1766 or See sidebar below, 10 Tips for Effective E-mailing.


Here are some e-mail tips for the university setting, culled from material presented in the E-Mail Etiquette class.

1. Be clear, organized and brief. Guard against long sentences and overly long blocks of copy; use paragraphs to break up your copy.

2. Beware typing in all CAPITAL LETTERS; people often take that as "shouting" — even though that is not how you intended it.

3. Use the "urgent" flag sparingly; too many "urgent" messages, and people may think you are "crying wolf."

4. Do not copy your manager or supervisor on all e-mail.

5. Give yourself a "cooling off" period before responding to angry e-mails.

6. Use a respectful tone — always. Be careful about using humor, unless you really know how your audience will take it.

7. Do not forward jokes and chain letters.

8. Do not send pictures of your children and grandchildren to the whole department.

9. Think twice before hitting "send." Check to be sure you are sending your e-mail to the right person.

10. Think twice before hitting "reply to all" — ask yourself if everyone needs to see your reply.

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,