Last week, I offended someone with whom I routinely correspond via e-mail. I didn’t mean to. It happened because I was using what seems to be the current conventions for e-mail etiquette. The recipient was expecting something different, what I might consider to be “old school” etiquette for e-mails.
When e-mail was first becoming popular, most messages were long and, despite the new delivery method, sounded like letters you’d receive in postal mail. They included salutations (“Dear Deb”) and closings (“Sincerely, Deb”). They were detailed and descriptive, able to stand alone as explanations or instructions. This was true in business and in personal correspondence, too.
Over time, e-mail brevity became more and more important. The subject line made people think of e-mails more like memos where a single topic was all that should be covered. Additionally, the sheer number of e-mails landing in a person’s inbox each day made it necessary to make your point clearly and succinctly. And then mobile devices crashed the scene. With the Blackberry, e-mails needed to be even shorter so people could read them on a small screen and respond with as few words as possible (since thumb typing isn’t easy).
All this happened before texting caught on. Originally, without keyboards, texting required multiple thumb motions to get a single letter. The fewer characters, the better. All those shortcuts carried over into e-mails and into our verbal conversations, too. You can’t often go a day without hearing someone say “OMG” or “BRB” or “LOL” and now we all know what those shortcuts mean.
The expectation about e-mails I hear most often is that they be as short as possible. No more salutations and signatures. In fact, fancy signature lines with company names are going out of favor because they take too long to load on a mobile device. (Just my luck, as I finally started using one just last year.) More and more, I’m hearing clients say, “Just send me a text.” E-mail, it seems, is no longer the delivery method of choice.
With the shortcuts and brevity expected in e-mail, there also seems to be an increased tolerance for typos. It’s widely accepted that we’re all in hurry and don’t have time to edit what we send. There also seems to be a greater license for not replying, sometimes for long periods of time. Texts, on the other hand, seem to receive nearly instantaneous responses.
Old school e-mail etiquette suggests that the e-mail tone should be formal, structured like a letter, and carefully edited. It sounds nice, and I would like to say that’s what I do. But the truth is that I, and most others I correspond with, take the shortcuts. Our e-mails are generally short, to the point (hopefully not sounding too terse), and stripped of all formalities. I’m not offended when I receive an e-mail that jumps right into the subject without any social niceties. I don’t expect to see a closing, since I already know before I ever open the e-mail who sent it. I find myself getting irritated if there are long, ponderous passages in the e-mail because I’ve become accustomed to short e-mails that make their point very quickly. It is a bit more difficult to read lengthy e-mails when I am on a mobile device, so I save them for later.
I do still try to respond to e-mails in a timely manner. But the rule I made for myself about 15 years ago isn’t one I stay true to today. That rule was that every e-mail would get some reply within 24 hours. I can’t keep up any longer, so I have to admit that some sit in my inbox for 48 hours these days.
Lest you think that I am defending these new conventions, let me just add that I’m a little sad that we’ve lost the art of sharing ourselves in our writing. No one writes letters any more, certainly not by hand and probably not delivered by the postal service. Now, it seems, there aren’t many who write more than a few sentences via e-mail. Single thoughts, in text and Twitter format, are the preferred mode of communication. We’ve lost the sharing as well as the formalities and niceties that went along with it.
Here’s a rule of etiquette that never changes. Consider the preference of the other party. It doesn’t cost you anything at all to modify your style in order to keep them from feeling offended. You might even find, as I did, that there is something of merit in doing things the way they used to be done.
As a leader, it’s imperative to understand why and how to show ever person that you care about them. Learn more about how you can CONNECT2Lead. And be sure to subscribe to the CONNECT2Lead Blog for weekly tips and techniques on leading with a people first approach.