16 Oct 2023

Decoding Emails

A total of 8.3 billion emails are sent every day in the UK alone (as of April 2023). Clearly, we have embraced this form of communication with enthusiasm, and nowhere more so than the workplace., where the average office worker receives over 30 emails per day.

The advantages of email are obvious: it is instant, aids efficiency, and is a brilliant medium for sending enquiries, reports, polite thanks, confirmations of orders and arrangements and much more. A record of all these communications will be retained and accessible, eliminating “he said” “she said” confusion.

But the ease of email also spells danger. Rapid-fire communication may seem like a formula for office efficiency but the ease of sending emails can all too often mean that they are dispatched precipitately, before the sender has scrutinised them carefully and passed them as fit for purpose. A poorly written email might come across as ambiguous or confusing. Without the mellowing effect of the human voice, email language can reek of passive aggression. And in a world where all the old formalities are dissipating, it is sometimes hard to get the tone right, perhaps alienating the recipient with over-punctilious formality, or offending them with too casual a tone.

All these risks are avoidable if a few moments are taken before pressing “send”, and a little thought and consideration is given to writing style.

Email Greetings

Emails evolved from conventional letters and many people still adhere to the simple salutation “Dear ….”, which is a safe default.

Those preferring a more casual approach will opt for “Hi”, “Hello” or “Hey”. All of these greetings are perfectly acceptable if you are writing to people who are on your wavelength (eg colleagues, like-minded customers and suppliers), but will seem much too informal if you are writing to, for example, lawyers, accountants, clients or suppliers you have never met before, managers or bosses.

A good rule of thumb, when replying to emails, is to return the greeting that has been used, or some approximation of it. That way you will ensure that you are matching the tone of your correspondent.

Some people try to avoid all the complexity of choosing a greeting by simply adding a peremptory name at the beginning of the email: eg ‘Jim’. This somewhat abrupt greeting sounds impolite and aggressive and should be avoided.

Sometimes greetings are completely dispensed with, but this is only acceptable when you are having a quick and pithy exchange with someone you know well.

Email Sign-offs

Business letters were conventionally signed off with “yours faithfully” or “yours sincerely”; these formal phrases are not commonly used in email communication. As with greetings, the safest bet is to match the tone and formality of emails you have received.

A range of signoffs are now in circulation with “Kind regards” and “Best regards” at the more formal end of the spectrum. “Best wishes” is perhaps the most neutral, while“Cheers” sounds a more informal note. Again, you will need to think about the recipient and your relation to them before you add a sign off – “kind regards” might seem extremely formal if you’re writing to a long-time colleague, while “cheers” might sound just a bit too casual if you’re communicating with your managing director.

If you’re enjoying an extremely casual exchange with someone you know well, you might dispense with signoffs altogether, just adding your name or even your initial.

Signing off with a kiss (x) is fine in certain contexts and with certain people, but it is not the norm in office communications, and it is probably best to think twice if you’re a compulsive email kisser.

Email Phrases that can be Misinterpreted

Certain phrases in business-related emails can come across as passive-aggressive, and should be wielded with caution:

“I’m not sure if you saw my last email?”
Of course you did – this commonly used phrase is clearly saying “Why have you not had the courtesy to reply?”

“Please advise”
This is standard business parlance but in an email, meaning “Are you going to actually get back to me?”, but it comes across as needlessly brusque. It would be so much more civilised to say, “Could you let me know?”.

“Per my last email”
Beware this officious phrase, which sounds like “We’ve already spoken about this, so when are you actually going to do something?” 

“Going forward”
This simple phrase packs a powerful punch, implying “I hope you’re not going to make this mistake again”.

“As you are aware”
This indicates “you already know this, so why am I having to remind you?".

“Correct me if I’m wrong”
This really means “I’m not wrong, you are…”

“Let me clarify”
This exasperated phrase clearly indicates that the writer feels that the matter in hand is extremely simple and straightforward and that a child should be able to understand it.

“Just checking in”
This is one of several phrases that basically mean “When are you actually going to deign to reply to me?”

“Thanks in advance”
This phrase brooks no argument; it means “Get on and do what I’ve asked and make it snappy”.

Email Pitfalls

The hazardous path to writing excellent emails will be considerably eased if you follow these simple rules:

•Do not reply to emails when you’re angry or affronted, or you will say things that you will later regret. If you need to get the emotion off your chest, write an email and save it as a draft – inevitably you will moderate the language when you return to it.

•Use polite phrases to moderate requests and soften criticism. Just using phrases like “Please can you” or “would you be able to” or “I’d be very grateful if you could” will take a lot of potential aggression out of email messages.

•Whenever possible, use the phrase “Thanks” or “Thank you” even if it is only to say, “Thanks for getting back to me” or “Thanks for your very helpful thoughts”.

•Eliminate the need to write passive-aggressive email reminders by being meticulous about replying to your emails promptly, even if it is only to say, “I’ve noted your query and will get back to you later this afternoon”. That way, your correspondents will not be tying themselves up in knots trying to politely extract a response from you.


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