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How to Send a Good Work Email

‘Better Internetting’ is our etiquette column for a better (digital) you

It doesn’t matter how solid your follower-to-following ratio is or how many times this week someone’s slid into your DMs to say, “Good tweet!”: We all could be doing better on the internet. So before any of us sets another “thirst trap” or workshops another high-concept Vine, let’s take a moment and try to be a little better. This is Better Internetting!

Let’s face facts: talking to people in a professional setting can be a waking nightmare. Here you are, trying to complete the tasks you’re contractually obligated to in order to receive a paycheck (and maybe even benefits!), and on top of it all, you have to get to know people. Commune with them. Listen to their thoughts on Zendaya. You are simultaneously up each other’s asses for a huge fraction of your waking hours and complete strangers. Arguably the battlefield where all these dynamics play out most is the workplace email (no matter how much your office prides itself on being Slack-centric).

That said, here are a few tips that can hopefully make this as painless as humanly possible. Godspeed.

Be cool, not “cool”

I hate being called “girl” by other women in a business setting. “Hey, girl!” “Sup, girl!” It’s patronizing and overly-familiar — plus, it usually comes right before someone asks for a favor they know they don’t deserve. I’m assuming being on the receiving end of a business “bro,” “bruh” or “breh” feels exactly the same. Friends don’t call friends “gurl” and “breh,” and if you need me to file your report for you because you’re leaving early this Friday, please don’t also make me suffer the indignity of these buzzwords. For all our sakes, if you’d sound like a 2004 Judd Apatow character saying it out loud, leave it out of your email, too. The coolest thing you can do is say, “Hey, I need a favor…” or “lmk if you have time for this…” because the actual coolest thing any of us can be in this world is a direct, effective communicator. Speaking of …

Get to the point

Your reply can just be, “Yep!” or “Nope!” Don’t worry. You’ve said enough.

Keep some choice GIFs handy

In the event that your answer is only one word but you’re feeling a little punchy, a GIF is a perfect, office-appropriate amount of fun to throw into a thread. One thing I did at my last job was make desktop folders filled with GIFs I liked on different themes. One was called RUDE GIFS; another was called POSITIVE GIFS. Depending on what the occasion was, I’d be able to pop into those folders and quickly drop my preferred art into Gmail. Something like read.gif instead of replying, “I read this!” helps keep things fresh as long as you’re using it in moderation. Animated Text is a great place to stock up (but you’ll have to shop around a little to find the PG ones).

Thank you, Animated Text.

Never reply-all if you don’t have to

If there are 30 people on the thread and you want to talk shop with one of them about the episode of Daredevil you watched last night, take it elsewhere. I barely care about the emails that are for me, so you can imagine where that leaves the 15-message back-and-forth about this season’s pacing.

Hmm, could this meeting be an email?

This is a little bit of a 3-point turn into email etiquette, but it’s relevant nonetheless: if you called a meeting to make a run-of-the-mill announcement, you’re rude. Send an email. If you called this meeting just to “touch base” and “see where everyone stands”: how dare you. It’s called email. In general, please assume that I’d prefer to provide you with basic facts and yes/no answers from the comfort of my computer, not over a conference call or crammed into your office.

Could this email be a text?

There’s a flipside to that coin. If it’s 11:30 p.m. and you just thought of a really cool thing we could do for Dan’s birthday next month, email away. I can’t wait to see it in the morning and read all your ideas. But if it’s 11:30 p.m. and you just noticed the header of our corporate blog accidentally links out to a porn site, go ahead and shoot me a text. I won’t be mad.

Be the ‘bump’ you want to see in the world

One of the realities of email is that sometimes they go unanswered, so if you’re in a position where you need to bump a thread* to get someone’s attention, I have a few requests:

  1. Don’t follow up an unanswered email with a phone call. This, of course, bars emergency situations like the one in the previous section. But in general, do you know how many times I’d like my desk phone to ring in a given year? Zero. If I haven’t replied to your email yet and you need me to weigh in, just bump the thread with, “need this asap” or “lol christine” and I’ll get the message.
  2. Know what you’re asking for. Often an email doesn’t get replied to because it didn’t have a clear purpose. If you say, “I need your input on something…” and then tell your tale, the reader knows that they have to reply with input. If you say “quick q:” they know they owe you a quick a (lol). But if you say something like “we’re out of toner” and leave it at that, people might think you’re making a mental note. If you say, “we’re out of toner — can you figure out where the refills are?” suddenly they’ve been given a task to deliver on. If the thread is important because your pushy boss Dana has requested the information, add that, too. Say, “for Dana: where’s the toner?” The more that you can frame this email as something pertinent to the reader’s well-being as opposed to one of 1,000 pieces of trash that will fly into their inbox today, the better.

*“Bump a thread” means reply to yourself so the thread gets pushed to the top of their inbox.