Is there a right way to write an email? We asked a business communication expert.

The first email ever was sent in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson, a young computer engineer who was experimenting to see if two computers could exchange messages while working for a firm hired to build the forerunner of the internet.  

Email is now ubiquitous – we’re spammed with it! – and a major form of communication when working or doing business. 

Its pervasiveness means the unwritten rules of email etiquette often cause common mishaps. Luckily there are experts who can help clear the air when you are trying to reach between the lines of your manager’s latest late-night email and put the smiley emoji back on your face.   

The unwritten rules of email etiquette can lead to mishaps. Photo: – Yuri A/

Associate Professor David Cheng, from the ANU Research School of Management, teaches communication for business. He says there can be a number of reasons for making an email faux pas.  

 “I think the main mistakes have to do with either speed, or just not thinking about exactly who my audience is and what is the best way of communicating with that person,” he says.  

 “We’ve all done it: we’ve misspelt something, we’ve hit send and then realised five minutes later, ‘oops, I shouldn’t have done that’ or hit the reply all button by mistake.”  

 But another cause for tension is the changing way email has been used since the first one in 1971.   

“In the past, email was just really an electronic form of a memo or a letter,” Cheng says. “Then over time, we now use email for everything, whether it be quick messages to people across the office to much more formal emails that an organisation may send.”  

A question of tone

Using email for everything can make it difficult to know when to be casual and when to take a more formal tone. Do your exclamation marks imply enthusiasm or are they simply a point of annoyance? More worryingly, are these the signs of too busy people screaming into the void?   

“With the younger generation, they see email as an extension of your instant messaging type services, like texting, so they’re a little bit more casual in the way they send things,” Cheng says.   

“Whereas the older generation are more likely to be a little bit more formal in their writing.”   

While this difference is usually benign or even humorous (like in this Tik Tok that shared the informal ways their Gen Z co-workers sign off emails) it also risks miscommunication by being seen as disrespectful for a casual email or too unapproachable for being relentlessly formal.  

Cheng says that bridging the divide should be a matter of knowing who your audience is and why you are sending an email, and if in doubt err on the side of formality.  

“If you were to meet the Prime Minister for the first time, you’re not going to say, ‘Yo, Tony’. You’re probably going to be a little bit more formal,” he says.  “Like a conversation, you might start formal and then go towards casual as you get to know a person better.”  

The right/write format?

The other issue with having this mishmash of email uses is that it does create cases where you ask – should this have been an email in the first place?  

“I think a lot to do with email etiquette is not just the actual words you use,” Cheng says. “A lot of emails aren’t really read, or they’re too long.  

“So, it’s about thinking: ‘what’s the best way of structuring my email to help [the recipient] and also to help yourself in terms of getting them to read and action.   

“Depending on your relationship with the recipient you may want to be mindful of their time by telling them early, maybe even in the subject line, what it is that you need and how long it’s going to take so they can action it.”  

Cheng says, personally, he wishes that people would pick up the phone or talk face to face to avoid misinterpretation that is possible over written text, then send an email as follow up if needed.  

But in the meantime, if you do send an email, we hope this guide will help you get the etiquette just right.  
Warm regards,  
ANU Reporter   

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