Email Etiquette

Concluding Your Email

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Trying to sound fancy can lead you astray.

People often ruin a perfectly good email with an awkward, convoluted stock sentence that shows up in almost every email they send. For example:

Should you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me.
Thank you in advance for your consideration and attention to this matter.
Please feel free to call, email or text me with any comments, questions, suggestions or concerns.

Generally avoid writing things you wouldn’t be comfortable saying. For example, I would never walk up to a client and say, “Should you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me.” I would sound ridiculous. That’s why I don’t write it.

Regarding the second closing sentence above, I don’t refer to “matters” in my email messages. I’m not about to sue the recipient, and fakely official and legalistic-sounding language pushes people away rather than reinforcing connections and community.

Also, thanking people in advance doesn’t really advance your cause. It might annoy them and feel pushy in some cases. You can just thank them, as in “Thank you very much.” And then if they don’t respond to whatever it is you’ve requested of them, you can follow up with them.

Here are sentences I have ended with in recent months:

Please let me know if you have any questions.
Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.
Please let me know if you would like me to make any edits.
I’d be glad to answer any questions.
I would welcome your thoughts.
I would be glad to meet with you to discuss the proposal in more detail.
Please feel free to call me any time with questions.
Thank you very much for your time.

You don’t need, and shouldn’t have, a single reusable default concluding sentence. Each time you send an email, simply consider the content of the email and choose something streamlined and appropriate to that moment, something that you could actually say to another human being.

Be yourself. It’s powerful.

An Email “Hi”

Is it professional to begin email with "hi"?

There is no email god out there to tell us the one true path to follow for our electronic correspondence.

People vary. Opinions vary. Style varies.

One of the more controversial areas of email etiquette is the opening: how best to begin email messages.

I grew up in the age of business letters. There was no email in business until I was safely into adulthood. That means I was extremely familiar with the traditional “Dear Ms. Smith” opening. For formal email, I still use that, and I consider it an important part of my overall email repertoire.

However, the percentage of clients who greet me with “Hi Ellen” in emails has increased dramatically in recent years. In fact, “Hi Ellen” is now by far the most common greeting I see.

There are still plenty of people who wrinkle their noses at the sight of an email “hi.” They regard it as unprofessional. Many of those people are on the older end of the workforce, although plenty of older people are also prolific “hi” users. 

Starting about a year ago, I began using “hi” plus the name in greetings, but only with clients who used it with me first.

It was scary. But I got over it, and fast.

I still don’t use “hi” with clients who favor more formal approaches with me, and by that I mean “Dear Ellen,” “Good morning, Ellen,” or just plain “Ellen.” For those clients I stick with a more formal style.

One final note: I used to place a comma between “hi” and the name, in deference to the traditional punctuation rules for direct address. I now think that looks fussy and stilted, so I have stopped. These days the only punctuation in my opening “hi” line appears after the name: “Hi Wilhelmina,” for example!

Language changes. That is not a bad thing; it is a human thing.

Be an Autodidact

Supplementing classes with teach-yourself materials is a powerful approach to lifelong learning.

In recent years I have thought a great deal about how people learn as adults.

In the past, when I wanted to improve my skills in, say, a foreign language, I would automatically sign up for a class. Now, especially with the proliferation of web-based resources, I have realized how much I can learn on my own.

Classes are great. They are, however, a small percentage of your overall lifetime. If you care about improving your oral or written communication skills, we would be delighted to have you attend our workshops, but it would also be an excellent idea to get some teach-yourself resources so you can learn on your own. Commitment is key.

To assist with self-study, we have put the entire contents of our four Syntaxis Press books online, and you are welcome to read those for free. They cover grammar, business writing, email etiquette, and presentation skills — the same content we distribute in physical book form to our corporate clients.

Many adults tell me they wish they knew more grammar. What they often do not realize is how much grammatical knowledge they can acquire on their own.

Besides our books, there are all kinds of resources on written communication skills that could be very helpful. I recommend going to your local bookstore and opening different books and seeing which ones appeal to you.

Such choices are very personal. They depend on what you know, don’t know, and want to know. They depend on aesthetic tastes. Sometimes a book that is highly esteemed just won’t appeal to someone that much.

No matter how esteemed a book is, you will acquire nothing from it if it simply sits on your shelf. It is important to take control of your own learning.

How to Avoid Overusing "Please" in an Email Message

A simple solution to a problem plaguing corporate email.

There are multiple arguments against using the phrase “please find attached” or the alternative “attached please find” in an email message.

First of all, the literal meaning is bizarre: You are imploring the reader to go search for an attachment that is sitting there conspicuously, right in front of his face.

Second, it is an awkward and unnatural-sounding construction. If you can’t imagine walking up to someone at work with a pile of papers and saying, “Enclosed please find the report you requested,” it’s not a phrasing you should use in your email.

Third is a practical consideration. On a daily basis across the United States, the “please find attached” habit leads to many thousands of email conundrums: how do you avoid saying “please” twice in a short email?

This problem arises because, in addition to beginning their messages with a “please find attached” sentence, many people end their email with another “please” sentence, such as this: “Please let me know if you have any questions.” 

The intended courtesy is commendable. The style is not. 

The closing sentence can stay. The opening sentence has to go.

Instead of using the clunky “please find attached,” just write “I have attached…” or “Attached is…”

With this adjustment, the wording of your opening sentence will still be 100 percent professional, but the language will sound more natural, more comfortable, and more confident. You will be writing in your own skin.

In addition, you will no longer have three-sentence emails in which 67% of the sentences begin with the same word.

Problem solved!

Your Earliest Convenience?

This phrase is not always as polite as people believe.

The phrase at my earliest convenience shows up frequently in business communications, often in a way that is less courteous than the user thinks it is.

For example, the phrase can sometimes be heard at the end of outgoing voicemail greetings, as in: “This is Mary Jones. I’m sorry I missed your call. Please leave a message, and I will call you back at my earliest convenience.”

Mary may think the phrase demonstrates her responsiveness, but let’s say a client calls Mary and gets her voicemail. Even though Mary is offering to call the client back at her earliest convenience, she is still essentially saying she will not call back before it becomes convenient for her. And wouldn’t the ideal of good customer service be to base the timing of the return call on the convenience of the client? It may well be convenient for the client to hear back from Mary long before it actually feels convenient to Mary to make that call.

Better, then, for Mary to end her greeting with something along the lines of “I will call you back as soon as possible.”

Multilingualism: Good for Business

Foreign-language skills help you compete in a global economy.

I am concerned about the poor state of grammar education in many American schools, for multiple reasons. One is that I believe a solid understanding of grammar is critical to good writing. Another is that having a grasp of your own language’s structure helps you when you try to learn others.

Monolingual English-speaking Americans are notoriously bad at picking up other languages. Part of the problem is that so many people in the U.S. — again, I am speaking here of monolingual users of English — have a limited understanding of how languages are and can be constructed.

This is a shame. A familiarity with one or more foreign languages can be a career enhancer. After all, not everyone speaks English!

Far from it, in fact. Despite the increasing dominance of English around the world, multilingual employees can deploy their skills in a global economy to communicate more effectively with clients and overseas colleagues alike. In addition, besides bringing possible professional rewards, learning a foreign language is tremendously rewarding personally. It expands one’s understanding of other modes of communication, of other cultures, and therefore of the larger human community.

There are many language courses out there, but busy professionals don’t always find it convenient — or pleasurable — to be tied to someone else’s class schedule. Fortunately, another option is self-study products (audio lessons, grammar books, multimedia applications, etc.) that people can use on their own, and at a pace that suits them, to develop their skills. Even learning just a few key phrases can be fun and helpful!

The Power of an Apology

Customer-service contrition is negatively correlated to the strength of the economy.

When the economy goes down, apologies to clients seem to go up. In economic bubbles, however, they plummet — and fast.

During the recession, a security company was supposed to do an installation for Syntaxis. Their technician didn’t show up, and when I called to check about the appointment, the person I spoke to admitted he had forgotten to pass along the job information.

“I’m sorry,” he said, before promising that the technician would arrive shortly (which he did).

The very same week, I got a second apology, this time from a shipping company that had made a mistake with the mailing address on a package.

Although these two experiences do not constitute a statistically significant sample, an increase in apologies may well be part of a larger trend towards courtesy and accountability in a challenging work environment. Even extremely conscientious people make mistakes from time to time, so perfection is not a reasonable expectation — but a courteous I’m sorry is. Unfortunately, pre-recession customer-service apologies were often hard to come by.

A number of years ago, for example, upon discovering a significant technical glitch, I sent an e-mail to the vendor responsible for that system. Our contact there never apologized, instead writing back simply, “This has been fixed.”

The unwillingness to say the words I’m sorry is a major customer-service failing, yet many people seem to believe they should never apologize to customers, because that would mean admitting a mistake. If a customer knows a mistake has been made, it is unproductive to pretend it hasn’t. In fact, pretending it hasn’t is an excellent way to infuriate customers, even drive them away altogether. (This technique has a similarly dismal record in people’s personal lives; if you are skeptical, try it out with a loved one and see how that goes for you.)

In a recession, when firms in many industries are competing for scarce business, it is natural that the quality of customer service would receive more attention. As the economy shrinks, you see growth in the apology sector.

Now that the economy is stronger again, perhaps the apology sector will once again show signs of decline — although I will hope for a hangover effect from harder times.

Good business etiquette, after all, is always good business!