The 7 Bad E-Mail Habits that Make People Want to Kill You


E-mail is a shallow way to communicate. It’s easy, fast and lacks the depth of understanding most people have face-to-face. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize just how much of this understanding is lost. As a result, they pick up bad habits and start driving coworkers, bosses and friends crazy.

Here are seven particularly bad habits, and how you can fix them so people don’t want to kill you:

1) Hanging Questions

Any e-mail that involves a request or question requires a follow-up. Even something as short as, “K.” However some people seemed to have missed this point, and leave requests or small questions completely unanswered. The problem here is that the sender has no idea whether you even read the message yet.

Here’s the fix:

  1. For small questions, answer them immediately after reading. Get an auto-responder or simply shorten e-mails to a few words if you’re facing a time-crunch.
  2. For questions you can’t answer yet, tell them that. If you won’t know until the 15th, don’t wait until the 16th to reply.
  3. For difficult or long-winded answers, tell them you aren’t sure/don’t have time to answer right now. If the message is important add writing a response to your to-do list. If it isn’t, just leave it there. Any response is better than silence.

2) Buried Requests

A buried request is where the question or actionable information is sandwiched between unimportant info. Consider the difference between these two e-mails:

Hi Bob, I’ve been considering your new proposal for adjusting the customer service policy. I think we should meet up and talk about it. Your proposal seems actionable, but I have a few concerns.

Compare to…

Hi Bob, I’ve been considering your new proposal for adjusting the customer service policy. I think we should meet up and talk about it. Your proposal seems actionable, but I have a few concerns.

When do you want to meet up?

In the first e-mail, the request is in the second sentence, buried away. In the second it is repeated and given a new paragraph. Which one do you think is easier to read?

3) Wrong Medium

E-mail works best for direct and non-time sensitive information. Conversations, discussions and anything that requires a heavy amount of back-and-forth should be done on the phone or in person. Trying to use e-mail to have these conversations can be slow, time-consuming and painful.

The solution is to bridge the e-mail gap when you recognize you’re wasting time with it. Ask the person if you can discuss the issues in person or on the phone at a specific time and date.

4) Trying to Be Clever

Don’t try to be witty or sarcastic in an e-mail and pretend as if everything you say will be taken literally. Although a few metaphors can come across well in an e-mail, most don’t. The person on the other side can’t tell with what intensity or emphasis you typed the words. If anything can be ambiguous, reword it and leave it out.

And don’t think using emoticons gives you the green-light to be clever and charming. A symbol can’t replace the hundreds of different varieties in voice, tone and gestures you normally use to communicate intentions.

5) Sending Urgent Requests Through E-Mail

My guideline is that I shouldn’t send an e-mail if I need a response in less than five days. Not only do some people take days to respond to e-mails, you won’t be able to convey urgency in text. When you are on the phone or in person, you can transmit the impending need of your request, while in text you can only resort to using CAPITAL LETTERS or exclamation marks!

6) Bulky Paragraphs

People don’t read e-mails, they skim. So don’t write an eight sentence paragraph in one chunk. Here’s some guidelines:

  • More than six lines? Split it up.
  • Important information? Make it a one-line paragraph.
  • Multiple pieces of important information? Make a quick bulleted list. (Like this one)

7) Playing E-Mail Tag

This probably won’t bother other people, but it might make you stressed enough to take it out on yourself. Don’t try to keep your inbox open to receive e-mails immediately as they arrive. Set times each day to answer and keep yourself by those limits. It will reduce distractions and force people who want to banter to pick up the phone and call you.