18 email etiquette rules: Essential tips for personal & professional emails

From professional greetings in email to a choosing the right closing, proper email etiquette can be tricky. Given the many messages we write, read and reply to every day, it can be easy to make an embarrassing mistake. But it pays to make an effort: Email etiquette helps you make a good impression by showing respect and appreciation in your communications.
Professional woman sits on bench smiling and holding laptop
Email professionalism means using proper email etiquette

Eight basic rules of email etiquette

You probably use email for many purposes: writing a quick message to your BFF or your boss, sending a newsletter to the members of your club, requesting information from your insurance provider, etc. What do all these scenarios have in common? The same basic courtesies can be applied to show your respect for your recipient – and make sure your message gets the attention it deserves.

General email etiquette rules to apply in all situations:

1. Use proper punctuation and avoid all caps. Using ALL CAPS IN YOUR EMAIL can be perceived as aggressive and shouty – and no one likes being shouted at. Be careful with other forms of emphasis as well – if you overuse exclamation marks, bold, underline, and italics, it diminishes their impact and your recipient may start to feel attention fatigue and give up on your message. Finally, use standard punctuation (periods at the end of sentences, etc.) to make your message more readable and avoid the impression of spam.

2. Be concise. Remember you are writing an email, not a novel. Keeping your message to the point shows that you respect the recipient’s time – and makes it easier for them if they are checking email on their phone. This does not mean you have to leave out important details – just that you keep the focus on what truly matters.

3. Use CC and BCC correctly. The CC and BCC fields are there so you can include people besides your primary recipient, and it can be tempting to take a “the more, the merrier” attitude. But you should keep in mind that many people receive over 100 emails each day, so it can be annoying to be copied into an email that has very little to do with them – and receive all the replies as the email chain grows. So it’s best to only use CC when it is truly important that those recipients are aware of the conversation, and BCC only to maintain recipient privacy on mass emails.
 
Bonus explainer: Feeling unsure about the proper etiquette for CC and BCC? We’ve got you covered: CC and BCC in email: How to use them

4. Be courteous with attachments.  Remember that even if you have an email program with generous attachment size and email storage limits, the same might not be true of your recipient. Attaching a large file might clog up your recipient’s inbox or even cause your email to bounce back. Instead, you can upload the large file to a cloud service and send the recipient a sharing link. Or compress and send the attachment as a ZIP file. No matter how you are sending your attachment, make sure to call it to the recipient’s attention in your message. And if you plan to attach a file, make sure you actually do so before you hit send – otherwise you’ll be sending an embarrassing follow-up a few minutes later! 

5. Process your emotions before sending an email: If an email makes you feel upset, wait until you feel calmer before responding. Taking the time to feel all your feelings and gain perspective can save you from sending a response you’ll regret later. Remember that if you send a rude or insulting message in the heat of the moment, there is no taking it back. Even if you were to feel able to solve the problem productively later after a cooling-off period, your angry email would still be in the recipient’s inbox, potentially making the problem worse.

6. Always proofread your message. Imagine an email contining spelllling and grammer mitakes – you would probably be less like to take it seriously and might even suspect it was spam. So always make sure the messages you send are error-free. A spellcheck is a good first step, but it won’t save you from typos like “incontinence” instead of “inconvenience.” You should always re-read your email at least once to catch any mistakes. For an important email, it’s even worth reading it out loud as a way to notice mistakes your eye might otherwise skim over.
 
Pro tip: Don’t add the recipient’s address to the “To” field until you are 100% satisfied with your message. That will keep you from accidentally hitting “Send” before you have finished writing and proofing your email.

7. Use a widely available font. An email is not the right time to express yourself through a hard-to-read font like Monotype Corsiva, or to strain your recipient’s eyes by scaling down to an 8-point font size. Good email etiquette means using a font that’s easy to read, and you’ll want to stick to a standard font like Times New Roman or Arial for practical reasons as well: With hundreds of fonts now available, not every less-common font will be correctly displayed on every device.

8. Send your message from an appropriate email address. Business correspondence should be sent from a business email address. If you are sending emails for work, use your company email address at all times. (Your employer may even have a policy prohibiting sending emails related to company business from a private account.) If you are self-employed, sending out job or college applications, or corresponding with your bank, you should create a professional email address, which means one that consists of your name and a serious sounding domain. There is also a time and place for fun domains or your college nickname – but save such addresses for writing to friends and family.

Business email etiquette

If email etiquette is important in your everyday life, it’s even more essential in the workplace. That’s because the emails you write on the job reflect on your professional image and are important in maintaining positive relationships with clients and coworkers. Using appropriate language, tone and structure will also let you express your message more clearly, making your business communications more efficient and effective. Corporate email best practices include the email etiquette rules above as well as the following email etiquette examples.

10 rules for professional email etiquette

These 10 email etiquette rules will help you make a positive impression on your coworkers, business contacts and customers.
  1. Write a clear, direct subject line
  2. Make sure you have the recipient’s name and address correct
  3. Start with an appropriate greeting
  4. Use "Reply all" with caution
  5. Watch your tone and be careful with humor
  6. Send timely responses
  7. Remember that nothing is 100% confidential
  8. Send emails during business hours
  9. Close your email professionally
  10. Use autoresponders

1. Write a clear, direct subject line

The subject line of your email may determine whether the recipient thinks it is worth their time to open. Just writing “Hi” or “Question” in the subject line – or even worse, leaving it blank – does not tell them anything about the relevance or urgency of your message. It is most effective to write a short, clear phrase or sentence that describes what your email is about, for example: “Meeting time changed” or “Feedback on your proposal”. Even if your email is urgent, it is poor etiquette to use all caps in the subject line, as that can appear like overly aggressive SHOUTING – or look like a spam mail.

2. Make sure you have the recipient's name and address correct

When writing a work email, make sure to check the email address as well as the spelling of recipient’s name. First off, nothing makes a bad impression like misspelling a person's name. Secondly, if you work in a big company there may be several individuals with the same or similar name. If you are initiating the email thread, make absolutely certain you have selected the correct person out of your email’s address book. If you send an email to the wrong Jackie Smith, not only will you appear careless, but there may also be privacy or security concerns if you are writing about a sensitive topic.

3.  Start with an appropriate greeting

Professional greetings in email include:
  • Dear Ms./Mr. <Last name>,
  • Hello <First name>,
  • Hi <First name>,
  • Dear <Name of department> Team,
The formality of the greeting you choose will depend on the recipient. When sending a job application, for example, it’s best to start with “Dear Ms. Jones” unless specifically asked to use the manager’s first name; while “Hi Mike” is fine for a coworker. If you are writing in a chain of emails, you can skip the greeting in your replies, but always include one the first time you make contact. You should never use colloquial greetings like “Hey guys,” “Howdy” or “Yo!”  in professional emails.
 
Bonus explainer: To explore more email greetings, read our explainer: Email greetings: The best formal and informal email openings

4. Use “Reply all” with caution

When replying to an email, be sure that you are only sending your message to the people that you actually want to communicate with. When someone presses “Reply All” to answer a department-wide email, all 42 recipients may have the annoyance of inboxes clogged with emails that simply read “Thanks” or “OK”. But this is harmless compared to accidentally hitting “Reply All” and venting your frustrations about a project or a co-worker for everyone to read. It always pays to double-check the recipients before sending.

5. Watch your tone and be careful with humor

When we talk to someone in person or in a video call, we take cues from their facial expressions and the tone of their voice in addition to the actual words. These cues fall away in written communications like emails and text messages, which is one of the reasons that the emoji was invented. However, sprinkling your work correspondence with smileys is not considered professional. It’s far better to be careful with your word choices and consider how your recipient might (mis-)interpret them. Jokes and humor can easily fall flat or be misconstrued when written in an email – especially if you work in a multicultural setting. It’s best to save them for an in-person meeting where you can read the room.
 
Pro tip: Understand cultural conventions
If you work with international coworkers or clients, an important part of email etiquette is communicating with them in a manner that’s appropriate to their culture. For example, in many cultures it is a sign of respect to address people as Mr. / Ms. / Dr. last name rather than using their first name as might be expected in the United States. Learn more in our deep dive: What are cultural differences in email communication?

6. How quickly do you have to respond to a work email?

Although it can be hard to answer every email you receive, you should do your best to reply to anything that is sent directly to you. Professional email etiquette calls for answering a message within 24 hours, even if it’s just to acknowledge that you’ve received it and give a timeframe as to when you can send a more detailed response. Otherwise people may think you are ignoring them or you haven’t received their message, and will send a follow-up message that takes up more of your – and their – time. Even if you can’t help someone, a polite “no” is more respectful and efficient than not answering at all.

7. Remember that nothing is 100% confidential

Always remember that a digital message can leave a trail. All it takes is one (sometimes accidental) forward or careless CC and your email may be read by people you never intended it for, so it’s always best to not to write anything you would not want everyone to see. Even if you are angry, be careful how you express yourself – the issue could be resolved quickly, but your rude email will still be making the rounds. And never, ever use abusive language or include inappropriate images in a work email, which could remain on your company’s server long after you’ve deleted it.

8. Send emails during business hours

Now that many office workers work remotely at least one or two days a week, the line between work time and free time has become even more blurred. It may be convenient for you to fire off an email at 9 pm after putting the kids to bed or on Saturday morning before hitting the hiking trail. But what about your recipient? Your email may unintentionally cause them stress when it arrives in their inbox and they think a reply is expected. Or if you have international coworkers, an email sent during your working hours might arrive in the middle of dinner time in their time zone. The best solution is to either limit off-hour emails or make you expectations clear – “I don’t need a reply until tomorrow afternoon.” Or use a time-delay function to ensure your emails are delivered  at an appropriate hour to the recipient.

9. What is a professional email closing?

Signing off with “Cheers, Ben” might be sufficient when writing to someone in your team, but generally you should put a little more thought into your closing. Match the tone of your sign-off to that of your initial greeting and the rest of your message. Some of the most widely used business email closings are:
  • Sincerely,
  • Kind regards,
  • Regards,
  • Best,
  • Thank you,
 followed by your first name if you have addressed the recipient by their first name, or your first and last name if you have addressed them as Mr./Ms. XYZ.
 
Your email should also include a professional signature that provides your recipient with some information about you. If you work for a company, your email will probably contain an automatic signature with your full name, title, the company name and your contact information, and often a logo and legal disclaimers. If you are a freelancer or have your own business, you should set up an automatic email footer for yourself.

10. Set up automatic replies

Whether you’re on vacation or attending a training, if you are out of the office for an entire business day or longer, setting up automatic replies to incoming emails is a professional courtesy you should not forget. An autoresponder helps keep the sender from getting frustrated when they don’t receive a timely response and gives them realistic expectations about when they’ll hear back from you. You should also use your autoreply to provide an alternative contact person, the dates you’ll be away, and any other relevant instructions.

We hope our professional email etiquette rules will save you from any unintentional faux pas down the road. We look forward to your feedback below!
 
This article first appeared on November 14, 2021 and was updated on August 17, 2023.

Images: 1&1/Shutterstock

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