Number. 32 © CDTL 2003
“So you think you have good manners?”: Writing Winning Email
Ms Lee Gek Ling
Centre for English Language Communication

Winning email is well-mannered email. Some are born with manners, some have manners thrust upon them, but all must have manners. As manners are cross-cultural, what is considered good manners in one culture may be impolite in another (e.g. informal salutations such as “Hi Peter!” may be acceptable in an email to an American professor, whereas it would be considered overly familiar and therefore rude to an Asian professor). To minimise cross-cultural rudeness, be as cosmopolitan as possible, buy a handbook for international (or national) etiquette, err on the side of politeness, and/or be formal until told otherwise by the recipient of your email.

Features of Winning Email

  • Accurate, concise, witty (optional) subject line: An attention-grabbing subject line often entices the reader to open the email whereas an insipid or dull subject line puts the reader off. An old subject line from another email thread is misleading; the reader might miss the new email, dismissing it as more of the same old chain.
  • Correct salutation: Be courteous: spell someone’s name correctly. Taking the trouble to find out what others are called shows you are polite, respectful and careful. To mis-spell someone’s name, if it was written down for you before, is unforgivable, betraying your sloppiness.
  • Good body: The ideal email should fit onto one screen. If the email is more than a couple of sentences, include sub-headings/numbered paragraphs so that the reader can quickly scan through the main points. Reading an email should take no longer than writing one. Remember: time is precious, especially when you have little time, lots of email and even more work.
  • Politeness markers: Learn how to use politeness markers. These differ from language to language. However in English, the most common are:
    • For making requests: “Perhaps I could trouble you for…”; “May I ask for...”; “Do you think it is possible to …”; “I am sorry to bother you but I need…”; “If you would be so kind (to do xxx), I would be grateful.”
    • For expressing disagreement: “If I may just point out...”; “Can I take you up on…”; “If I understood correctly you said…can I offer an alternative view…”; “That’s very interesting, I have never heard it said like that before.”
    • For correcting someone: “Perhaps I didn’t express myself very clearly, let me rephrase myself…”; “Sorry if I didn’t get my meaning across, what I meant to say was…”; “Could I put it another way...”
  • Complimentary close: Like a letter, you must sign off your email, and how you sign off depends on how well you know the person and what sort of email is being sent. Just as you would never sign off intimately in a business letter (e.g. use “Lots of love”), you wouldn’t be so casual in a formal email either.
  • Signature address: Be polite and give as many contact details (e.g. snail mail address, phone and fax numbers) as possible so that the reader can contact you in different ways. For instance, if the reply to your email is very long or complicated, the recipient may prefer to send you a letter or phone you instead. Certainly, a reader is reassured that you are not some cyber nut if you include your full contact details. They might think you were mad, bad and dangerous to know if all they have is a return email address, especially if your email address is ambiguous (e.g. kitten@hotmail.com).
  • Absence of weird whacky stuff: Whacky stuff means weird email monikers, personal philosophies, political/religious quotations and/or pictures made up of little crosses. These are fine for personal email to friends who know you, but are truly off-putting for other readers, especially if it is a business email. It is also extremely discourteous to force your personal sentiments on unsuspecting strangers. Do you want the email that took you effort to write to lose out in the end because you inadvertently offended the recipient?

In short, winning email has FACE:

F—face or respect for the reader;
A—accuracy in spelling, punctuation and grammar;
C—courtesy, coherence, correctness and conciseness in the language of the email;
E—e-manners in the subject, salutation, complimentary close, signature block of the email.

 
 
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