People don’t use email to its full potential. They hem and haw about sending an email. They wring their hands about minor wording. And worst of all, they don’t think to send emails when it would really benefit them.
Email is a tool. It can be used as a crowbar, prying open previously closed doors. It can be used as looking glass into a multitude of open source communities. And it can be used as a ledger, storing promises and responsibilities.
I am by no means a master of email. But I’ve learned a few things about sending emails. Let’s explore them together.
Because y’all are impatient, here’s a quick summary:
- Don’t overthink email etiquette. Write politely but not stilted or overly formal.
- Keep the email terse. Omit needless words.
- Reach out to people via email. Even if you don’t know them personally.
- Subscribe to open source mailing lists
- Get important promises or statements in an email.
- Be careful how you phrase emails, even to friends.
- Secure your email (use MFA!)
Now please read the rest to get the details.
The first rule of email etiquette is to not overthink it. As long as you’re not on either extreme of the casual/formal spectrum, nobody will notice. Think about how little you care about other people’s emails. When was the last time you were offended by someone’s style in an email? Not the content or the implied emotions, but the actual style of the email. If you can actually come up with an example, I don’t think you need this section.
In school, I address the first email to a professor with “Dear Professor” or “Dear Professor Lastname”. If I notice that they sign the email with their first name and I feel that their comportment is casual enough, I’ll switch to their first name. One cultural rule of thumb I use is that Americans tend to be a lot more casual. In general born and bred Americans will be fine with first names. Other countries vary, so I won’t give any overgeneralizations. If in doubt, just keep using professor.
Anybody who teaches, whether an adjunct or a tenured professor, can be addressed as professor.
In a work environment, I use first names with colleagues. This may seem counterintuitive, but in a modern day workplace, that’s totally normal. Anything more formal just appears stilted or cold.
I sign emails with “Best”, “Thanks”, or “Sincerely”, depending on the context. Generally “Best” is a good bet no matter what. “Sincerely” sounds a little too formal for everyday use. “Cheers” is another excellent casual closing. Always put Best/Thanks/Sincerely, a comma, then a new line and your name:
As the email chain progresses, I use fewer and fewer greeting/closing statements. The first email will use “Dear Professor” and “Thanks/Best”. After that maybe I will put in a “Hi” and “Nicholas”, but most likely I’ll just skip to the actual content. Especially if the other person is doing that as well.
Omit Needless Words
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White may be considered outdated by many1, but I do love the classic advice of “omit needless words”.
Before you send an email, go through each paragraph and remove as many words as possible. Common targets include what I’d call throat clearing words like “then”, “actually”, “also”, “so”, “thus”, etc.”
Try to think about the rhythm of your prose. If you want something to be blunt and well understood, perhaps you should go for a short, staccato sentence. Try to vary the length of your sentences to avoid sounding like Hemingway or David Foster Wallace (too staccato versus too legato). Does your prose read like an endless slog? Do your sentences just go on and on and on? Or does your writing snap along, fast and witty and easily digestible?
Read the email out loud and see if any words stick out as awkward. At the same time avoid writing like you speak. We use far too many filler words in our speech.
Keep in mind length. Nobody likes getting Tolstoy in email form. Try to keep an email to one single topic or one single question. Otherwise perhaps you can move the text to a separate medium, such as a blog post?
But enough pedantic nonsense about form. Let’s talk about email’s uses.
Email Random People
Well, not random people. But if you ever, for any reason whatsoever, have an urge to talk to someone whose blog post you’ve read or whose software you’ve used or whatever, then do it. Email them.
I know, you’re about to say “But Nicholas, I don’t know their email”. Well find it! Some people keep their emails on their GitHub page. Others keep it on their website. If you have mutual contacts, you can always ask your contacts for that person’s email. Or you can guess. As long as the email isn’t sensitive in any form, you can guess the person’s email address and see what happens. <firstname>@company.com is a good bet.
Try to keep these emails short and to the point. If someone is getting an email from a random person, it needs to be enticing from the start. Explain why you’re emailing them and what you want in the first few sentences.
You’d be surprised who responds to emails. Especially if you’re a student. There’s something charming about a young novitiate reaching out for mentorship.
Mailing lists are how a lot of open source projects organize their discussions. I’m personally subscribed to the Python and Ruby mailing lists. They’re a great way to see how an open source community is run, as well as to see the decision making process for major programming languages.
Plus you can get people’s emails through mailing lists, since a lot of big names are active on them.
There’s also other mailing lists such as the NYU CS Opportunities list. The opportunities list can be pretty useful for keeping track of potential positions, interesting events and anything else. Though there is a decent amount of spam on it.
Get It In Writing
One of the most important pieces of advice that I’ve gotten is to get any sort of agreement, proposal or statement in writing. Email is fantastic way to do that. You can and should use email as a personal record of important conversations.
If you have a group project and your partner agrees to take over the front-end while you do the back-end, maybe you should send an email to them confirming this agreement. Then when your project has two back-ends on the due date, you can forward the necessary emails to your professor.
This is especially important if the other person has more power than you. If you don’t get something in writing with your boss, ultimately it’ll be your word versus your boss’s word. Not exactly a great situation.
Word It Wisely
One side effect of email being such a powerful tool is that it’s quite possible to have it used against you. Therefore be careful about what you send. If your email will hurt you if forwarded to the wrong person, then don’t send it. Either reword it or communicate via a different channel.
Y’know how mobsters in movies never talk on the phone about their dirty business? You should do the same.
You may say “but Bob is totally my friend! He won’t forward that email to Eve!” And sure, Bob could be your friend right now. But that might not always be the case. Even so, what if Bob’s emails are compromised? Better to just not send it.
Also keep in mind your style. Even though it’s totally cool to add cursing and funny nicknames to your friends, make sure that it’s not so offensive that a simple forward will get you in trouble.
At work employers have access to all of your emails. Act accordingly.
Lock It Down
Hopefully I’ve convinced you of some of email’s power. I want to leave you with one last piece of advice: secure your damn email. There’s a lot of criticism towards the mandatory Multi Factor Authentication on our NYU accounts, but I actually think it’s a very good idea. If an attacker gained access to your NYU account, they could unregister you from courses, effectively unenrolling you from NYU. Most importantly, they have total access to your email. Think about how many accounts, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, you may have linked to that email. Think about how much damage one single email to the wrong person could do. If an attacker has access to your email, they can reset all of those accounts’ passwords, send emails in your name and basically take over your life. Always secure your email.
I’d recommend Dreyer’s English as a great modern alternative. ↩