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6 Ways to Ruin an Email

·National Correspondent, Technology

(Photo-illustration by Daniel Bean. Image via Thinkstock).

Continuing with my January series on feigned self-improvement, I dive deeper into the familiar and exhausting practice of email writing, an art and an affliction.

If you are an overworked human like most of us, your inbox is probably an abyss of unanswered messages, relentless promotions, and forwarded chain messages from your Aunt Kathy. In fact, it is probably very rare that you get an email you actually enjoy reading.

Perhaps, you, too, have been the culprit of writing a garbage email. It’s not entirely your fault. It may be our general disenchantment with the inbox, but many of us have become mediocre email writers, people we prefer not to be. 

We do not expect greatness in our virtual mail bin, and therefore we do not deliver it either. 

But your mediocrity ends in 2015. Below are some of the most typical email offenses to avoid. Take notes, people; you’ll need them.

Excessive exclamation mark usage

As New York Magazine's Science of Us recently observed, “the exclamation mark, once reserved for expressing joy or excitement, now simply marks baseline politeness.” This is unfortunately true, due to the fact that (as research suggests) it’s much harder to convey emotion via text. Still, there’s a fine line between showing good intentions and sounding like you’re on speed.

As a rule, limit an email to two exclamation points at most. Don’t use one after a salutation or a farewell, because that’s just unnecessary. Reserve them for statements that might otherwise be misinterpreted as demanding, cold, or unfeeling (see this Onion article for reference). Never use two or more in a row unless you are intentionally mocking your preceding statement. 

You might be thinking, what does this girl know about punctuation? Barely anything! But I do spend at least eight hours every day being annoyed by the Internet. 

Canned white-collar worker speak

A cruel lingual disease grabs hold after you enter the workforce. Phrases like “please advise,” “going forward, “looping in X,” or “let’s circle back on this” seep into our lexicon and therefore our emails. They are the bane of the email-buried thought worker’s existence, the equivalent of staring at a screen full of 0s and 1s for hours at a time.  

This language can be easily avoided and/or made fun of, depending on your superior’s sense of humor. Next time you catch yourself writing a phrase that sounds like something out of an episode of The Office, take a moment to translate whatever phrase you were about to write down. “Please advise” can become “What do you think?” “Looping in X” can become “I’m including X in this conversation, because she’d be a helpful person to have on this project.”

Mostly, don’t abandon your personality for the sake of brevity. Make jokes. Be real. Point out the absurdity of America’s standard workplace communication practices. People will answer your emails (and like you more) if they’re fun to receive.

Unnecessary formalities

There’s a reason that old fancy people like Jean-Paul Sartre used to start his letters to Simone de Beauvoir with “My dear little girl” (aside from being tragically French). It’s because those letters took time to arrive. He needed to convey tenderness and longing between postage deliveries. 

Now it takes, at most, a few seconds to send an email. Which means it’s acceptable to drop some of the typical conventions you might find in an IRL paper letter.

So, if you’re reaching out to someone, you should definitely start with “Hi X” or, if they are a considerable pay grade above you and you’ve never come close to an introduction, “Dear X.” You should also finish off the message with a “Thanks,” or “Best,” again depending on your professional distance. 

But as soon as the conversation gets going, there’s no need to continue with the greetings and farewells. If an adult human is using email to communicate, they will not be offended by your lack of pleasantries in a fast-paced digital conversation. This is a chance for brevity. Take it.

Inappropriately playful sign-off phrases

When it comes to signature farewells, please remain conservative. Don’t try to be a hero. “Sincerely,” for instance, is kind of dated. “Yours truly,” or “As ever,” are weirdly intimate and trying too hard. “Cheers” feels imposter-y and British. “Best” is bland but fine, the equivalent of putting a blank space before a comma. Usually your best bet is “Thanks.” It’s appropriate because you just made a person read an email, and they deserve gratitude for that. It could also be “THANKS” if someone actually did you a huge favor.

Remember, there is no one right sign-off. Adapt your tone based on the recipient. My goodbyes to Beyoncé versus, say, Donald Trump, would be entirely different.

A long, self-important postscript 

It’s wonderful that you’ve figured out to permanently stamp every email you write with your name and title. But that does not give you the authority to write a small biography on your life. Please keep the list of accomplishments and social handles short. At most, you should have your name, title, company, two phone numbers, and ONLY one social handle.

Do not include a quote from Gandhi or Mother Teresa or anyone, really. If you email often with a person about mundane things, ultimately the content of your messages will look ridiculous alongside an inspirational quote. Nothing says “I’m a jerk” like a gossipy email about Jill from HR’s outfit followed by a quote that says “My life is my message.” 

Diseased and or/colored lettering, such as Papyrus or Comic Sans

Fonts have connotations. Like, if I sit down at a restaurant whose menu is written in Comic Sans, I pretty much expect to get food poisoning. The same judgment applies to the words in your emails. Unless you are a graphic designer whose font judgment is sought after, do not stylize the default text on your emails. Or enlarge it. Or make it colorful. Dear God, don’t make it colorful. 

Follow these easy tips, my dear desk-chained employees, and your digital existence might just get better. If it doesn’t, consider more extreme measures

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her.