It is often said that letter-writing is a lost art. Everyone has moved onto emails or instant messaging. This surely should mean that everyone knows how to write emails, but the evidence suggests not. Get it wrong—fail to include the right people, or get the tone wrong—and everyone will end up confused and quite possibly offended.

This page explains the etiquette of emails. It covers the basics, such as understanding the difference between ‘To’, ‘Cc’ and ‘Bcc’, and knowing when to use them, and the importance of a signature, and is designed to ensure that your emails do not offend or upset.

Our page on Writing Effective Emails explores making your emails more likely to be actioned.


Addressing Your Email

When you send an email, the first issue is the recipients, and particularly whether to use ‘To’, ‘Cc’ or ‘Bcc’.

  • ‘To’ is used for the main recipient, or anyone who needs to take action. Always use ‘To’ when you have just one recipient.
  • ‘Cc’ is used for people who need to see the email, but do not need to take action as a result. It is commonly used when you need someone to know that you have sent the email. This might be your manager, or could be a group: for example, if you have agreed that you will send an email on behalf of a club or group, and you want the committee to know that you have done so, and what you said, then you would ‘cc’ them in.
  • ‘Bcc’ is used for people who need to see the email, but where you do not need/want everyone to see who has received the email. It is also used where you have a responsibility to protect people’s privacy and not provide their email addresses to everyone, such as a group email list for a club or society. If all your recipients are ‘Bcc’, you will need to send the email ‘To’ yourself.

Any recipient can reply to you. Bcc recipients cannot reply to everyone else.

Using ‘Reply to All’


When you receive an email, please think carefully about whether you need to reply, and whether you need to ‘reply to all’ (that is, your reply will go to everyone on the ‘To’ or ‘Cc’ list for the email.

Only use ‘reply to all’ when your response really needs to be seen by everyone, and not just the original sender.

You do NOT need to reply to all when:

  • You are acknowledging receipt of the email (and please consider whether you need to do this at all);
  • You are saying whether and when you are available for a meeting; or
  • You are continuing an offline conversation with the sender.


The Email Subject

We all receive too many emails to be able to manage with an inbox full of subject-less messages. The subject is the way that people filter emails and decide whether to read them now, later or not at all.

Use the email subject to explain (briefly) what your email is about.

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If your email is either urgent, or for information only, SAY SO in the subject box. Preferably in capitals, and before any other words, so that it shows up. For example:

  • Subject: URGENT: Children’s vaccinations: consent needed.
  • Subject: FOR INFORMATION ONLY: Slides from this morning’s meeting.

This means that it will be read immediately if necessary and/or put aside for later, without your recipient having to worry about it.

DO NOT be tempted to abuse this. If you do, your recipient/s will be much more likely to ignore future 'urgent' emails and you won't be able to use this again, even when you really need it.

You can also use your email client to send messages with high (or low) importance. This flags emails in your recipient's inbox making them easier to spot. Again it is important that you only use these flags when emails are actually very important and/or urgent.


‘Topping and Tailing’ Your Email

It is generally a good idea to start your email with a greeting, such as ‘Dear [Name]’, or ‘Hi [Name]’. ‘Dear’ is more formal, and is better if you do not already know the recipient.

If you are responding to an email from someone else, it is also helpful to say something like ‘Thank you for your email about [subject]’ as this sets your reply in context. You may be replying immediately, but there is no guarantee that they will see your response straight away, and they may have sent and received 50 emails already that morning.

It is also nice—and therefore good for future relationships—to sign off with a greeting such as ‘Best wishes’ or ‘Kind regards’. This serves another purpose, too: it shows that you have finished the email, and that the recipient has received all the content.


Attachments

Use attachments to share large amounts of text, especially if not everyone needs to read it.

Explain the content in the body of the email, so that recipients can decide whether to read or not.

DO NOT use attachments for short notes or letters that could easily be placed in the body of the email.

Of course you can attach other files to emails - not just text based files like Word documents. Common attachment types include pictures, spreadsheets and PDF files. Be aware that some file types may be blocked by the email client or security software, and many organisations block all but a few file types. Generally people are wary of attachments as they are sometimes used to spread malicious software and viruses.

Tone and Language

Emails do not have the advantage of body language, facial expression or tone of voice to help recipients to interpret them. Words therefore tend to be taken at face value.

Getting the tone and language right is essential to avoid offending people.

DO NOT make jokes or try to use sarcasm in emails, especially business or official ones. Using emojis is generally not encouraged under these circumstances, and you could easily offend.

The Email Signature

It is good practice—and generally polite—to ensure that you sign off emails with enough details for your recipient to be able to recognise you and respond.

  • On a personal email, your first name is likely to be enough. You may need more if your first name is common, and/or your email address is cryptic.
  • On a business email—which includes anything official, such as communications with a school, college or university, or to a doctor or other health service provider, as well as paid work—you should include your full name. You should also consider whether more information is necessary, such as your job title and/or contact details.

Many devices will add an email ‘signature’ to the bottom of any email. Examples include ‘Sent from my iPhone’, or ‘Sent from Windows Mail’. You can remove or customise this, adding more information if you wish.

Organisations often add an email signature from the organisation itself too. You may want to check whether your organisation does this and set one up for yourself if not. Although it is possible to create long email signatures it is good practice to keep them as concise as possible.


The bottom line

A bit of time and trouble to get the tone and etiquette right in your emails will help you to avoid offending others. It is well worth the bother.

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