About 15 years ago, when I was attending Grammar School in Ukraine, I had a course on Ethics, as my school was built on classical education principles. A tiny old lady, wearing a nice hat and gloves was showing us how to lay the table properly, instructing us how to talk to seniors, how to behave in public transportation, how to compose letters to a school headmaster, how to be generally modest and respectful and many other (useful) things.
In today’s globalized world this subject may seem obsolete, as you can quickly browse table etiquette on YouTube or read up quick tips on professional demeanour on LinkedIn. However, not many people would search for e-mail writing protocols before dropping a line to a (potential) business or project partner. Thus, if my school still offers the Ethics course, I would definitely suggest including a section on e-mail etiquette.
Is it only about mailing?
Nowadays e-mail serves not only as a fast communication tool, but also as a means of making the first impression, if you need to reach out to a potential partner in the UK or you simply would like to remind about your idea to the company owner in Germany (whom you briefly met at a conference). You may also contact a person in India whom you’ve never met just based on someone’s recommendation or company’s reputation.
That is why your e-mail should not be too long and vague; it should be informative and understandable at the same time. In a clear way it should briefly present you or your organization, your idea and potential contribution and feedback needed from the addressee. It might sound simple enough, but not everyone succeeds in conveying the message and receiving an enthusiastic reply. Do not forget to start with a clear subject line directly relating to the issue you would like to discuss in your e-mail.
Details Do Matter
In many cases, details matter and they can be decisive. How many times did you get your name misspelled? How many times did you receive a generic letter which does not specify your name or the name of the company? Such e-mails could simply be a template, but with a bit of personal touch they can also become the first step to a promising collaboration.
Cultural peculiarities are also important. I have been working in Hungary since 2010 and at my previous job I used to receive e-mails with dozens of exclamation marks for a simple reminder. At first I thought it was an extremely rude command, but when I noticed communal ads around the town “ATTENTION!!!!!!!! The water meter will be checked on Monday!!!!!!” I realized that it is a usual way of writing in Hungary and it does not necessarily mean that a person is “shouting” at you. However, exclamation marks and CAPS LOCK should still be avoided.
First of all: the first name
Addressing an unfamiliar person in an e-mail might be tricky in Hungary as well; sometimes you might simply confuse the first and last name of a person. For example, would you know that Pál Bese is actually named Bese and not Pál? :) And certainly let us not forget the sensitive issue of addressing a woman and choosing a neutral “Ms”, if you are not sure about her marital status (not that the marital status should matter for business correspondence, in my opinion).
What’s up? :)
On the other hand, how do you “downgrade” the business correspondence level after you met a person over a lunch or dinner? Do you start using smileys? Do you drop the “Dear” in the beginning and simply start your e-mail with “How’s it going, man?” Do you insert some (lame) jokes? Hopefully, the answer to all these questions is “no”. A sound balance of friendly and business tone should work, e.g. referring back to a pleasant discussion during the dinner, wishing a nice weekend ahead, sending regards to the family members, if you met them, etc.
The Golden Rule
My daily tasks as a Project Manager require writing dozens of e-mails to people in different countries. It might be challenging due to cultural differences, English knowledge level and even the font settings (e.g. when you cannot read those tiny letters in yellow). The art of being polite, precise and still showing your individual style of writing (i.e. your personality) is not as difficult as it may seem. Paraphrasing the Golden Rule: please, write e-mails in a way you would like to receive them. :)