There’s no one, perfect, way to write an email. You may have consulted various websites with email advice offering to give you the help you need to write “the” perfect email. In reality, email has to serve a number of purposes, and what you say in yours will be “perfect” if it suits the occasion.

From a behavioral perspective, a perfect email is one that produces the outcome you desire. You may have a couple of misfires within the email, or even a typo or two, but if it gets what you want, there’s no need to fret about those little keyboard gremlins. On the other hand, if those typos are significant enough to change the meaning of the message, the results could be disastrous.

Email was invented as a means to facilitate communication. No need to wait for a letter or postcard or to have to play phone tag. At any time of day or night, your message can be released into the radio waves, and the person you’re trying to reach can, similarly, give you an answer at any time as well. This fluidity of time can become your undoing, though, if you send an email when you’re sleepy, angry, or in a rush.

University of Maine’s school of business Niclas Erhardt and colleagues (2016) examined the use of email as a tool for team learning. We can gain some insights from their observational study carried out over the course of 44 weeks in a large Swedish insurance company to understand how email can foster constructive interactions. The body of 468 emails they collected over the course of the study, along with in-depth interviews provided the researchers with a fascinating window into the communicative stream as it flows among teams of co-workers.

The emails fell into 3 basic categories: Knowledge sharing (giving or receiving information), “co-construction” (building shared interpretations), and constructive conflict (identifying and resolving potential disagreements). As the authors concluded, “the affordances of email (asynchronicity, editability, persistence, and replicability) shape how … team learning occurs” (p. 259). Although this was obviously a work-based study, and therefore it’s to be expected that much of the email content was impersonal in nature, as anyone who’s worked in any sort of office or business setting knows, even these emails can carry plenty of emotional bang for their buck. What the Erhardt et al. study shows is that email can actually enhance face to face communication to bring about positive work, and interpersonal, outcomes.

In fact, that asynchronicity of email is what can be your best friend in constructing perfect emails. Your all-purpose guide to writing perfect emails starts with this premise. All of these tips are based on your willingness to reflect before you respond or initiate an email contact:

  1. Take your time to read, mull over, and then draft a response. You’re less likely to ruin a good relationship by over-reacting if you use that time to ponder your response to a question that bothers you. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t send emails when you’re tired or angry or when you’re crying, intoxicated, or in the mood for revenge.
  2. The editability of email also allows you to say different things to different people about the same topic. In planning a family gathering, for example, you can keep everything the same except your comments or requests specific to that invitation. You may tell Aunt Sally to bring a cake and Uncle John to bring the beer but the essence of the invitation is the same. If one email will be offensive to the other party, however, make sure your messages don’t get crossed.
  3. Use constructive conflict resolution in an email in a way that you can’t in a face to face meeting.. It may annoy you to have to answer someone’s endless set of questions, but by self-editing, you can make your answer come out in a supportive and positive way (as long as there’s no passive-aggressive leakage of annoyance).
  4. Emails can also, as in the Erhardt et al. study, become a tool for collaborative problem-solving. You can bat things around in a long, continuous chain, until everyone is satisfied with the outcome.
  5. Let “save as draft” become a regular tool in your communication toolkit. This allows you to get the words out on the screen and examine them for any potentially damaging typos or inadvertent insults or slights.
  6. Only use “reply all” or “send” when you’re sure the recipients are the ones you intend for them to be. On a mobile device, it’s particularly likely that you’ll make an error like this because it’s so much harder to see the screen, but it’s also easy to let your fingers fly on the keyboard to the wrong auto-correct choice of recipients.
  7. Use the proper salutation for your recipient. Again, this is where being able to modify the same content to different people can be of help (“Dear Ms. Jones” vs. “Hi Barb”). You want to make sure you pause and consider the level of formality of your relationship with the recipient, especially if it’s someone you’ve never met or is of higher status than yourself. The same goes for your signature. Only say "Best regards" if you mean it.
  8. Keep the email focused on the task at hand rather than dragging in extraneous material. In constructive conflict resolution, participants direct their communication to the problem that needs to be solved. Similarly, whether in a work or personal email, if you’re dealing with a tense or sensitive subject, choose your words and focus very carefully. This is another reason why drafts can be so beneficial.
  9. Ask for help if you’re not sure what to say in an email. There’s no shame in collaborating with someone who knows more than you or who can at least give you a different perspective. Cut and paste your email into an email to a person you trust before you send it to the intended target. A little fiddling with the words may produce a much more successful outcome than you were able to see yourself.
  10. Don’t feel the competitive rush to be the first person to reply to a group email. Because you’re in a hurry, you may fail to see the subtlety either in the original email or in your response. So what if someone else replies first? It doesn’t mean that you’re a slacker, but it does give you the edge of being more judicious in your response.

“Take the time to reflect” should be your new email mantra. Face-to-face interactions are the basis for much of our personal fulfillment, but in this increasingly email-based world, adding asynchronous interactions may help enhance yours in surprising ways.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016

Reference

Erhardt, N., Gibbs, J., Martin-Rios, C., & Sherblom, J. (2016). Exploring affordances of email for team learning over time. Small Group Research, 47(3), 243-278. doi:10.1177/1046496416635823