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

E-Mail

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.


  • Alex

    Good and essential tips, especially 4 “trying to be clever.” I am too often guilty of that one. A standard sarcasm mark might be helpful for that problem. Like a tilde to end a sarcastic sentence. Great article~ vs. Great Article!

  • Todd

    good article Scott! Email can very often give the wrong tone, so its a really good tip to keep it simple!

  • lovelydisturbance

    email is overrated.

    if there is a conflict in my office or my personal life, i try to catch the person by phone or walk into the office.

    this way, we can discuss the issue as human beings, face to face.

    it helps to further understand a person.

  • gex

    I think you forgot the most important piece:

    Use the subject line appropriately!

    It is the most critical part of the message. It lets the receiver evaluate at a glance how critical a timely read/response may be. It helps the receiver locate the message if there is some failure in the process and the email gets buried.

    And by all means, if you are in an email chain in which the topic changes, CHANGE THE SUBJECT LINE TOO. Nothing’s worse than trying to find an email about foo when the subject line indicates a message is about bar.

  • gex

    Another thing I do for email clarity is I avoid paragraphs in favor of lists whenever possible.

    Face it, we just aren’t that eager to read a lot of dense text in an email. And like the buried question in your example, details are easy to miss in a long paragraph containing many points.

  • mike

    I’m conflicted about email. Six lines are too long? People only skim emails? We are becoming so dumbed down! People used to write (and recipients actually read) six PAGE letters. Today, six lines is considered something that must be “split up.” I hear where you’re coming from, Scott, I just can’t accept this fast-paced, insipid, bulleted lifestyle that seems to be rammed down our throats under the guise of “productivity.”

  • Scott Young

    Mike,

    I’d be the first to agree with you. That people should slow down, read less and focus more effectively.

    But the problem isn’t with “productivity” it’s with other people. Other people have been taking on the “fast-paced bulleted” lifestyle and it means that if you want there attention, you can’t write a six page letter anymore.

    I know people that get over 100 e-mails a day. I doubt the President of the United States would have received more than 100 letters a day 200 years ago. With that kind of volume, they are forced to scan and not read. And if you want your messages to be understood, you need to play by those rules, not your own.

    -Scott

  • William Furr

    I agree with almost all of you rules, except for #3, at least in my field. As a programmer/analyst for a college, I have found that 90% of phone conversations are a complete waste of time. Even the ones that aren’t, only provide value in that I transcribe any important information into my notes.

    With e-mail I have greater depth of understanding because I can take my time and READ the information at any pace I desire, and when it’s time to take notes, the information is already in text format!

    Don’t even get me started on voice mail. I wish I didn’t even HAVE a voice mail box.

    However, it’s possible my dislike of phone calls stems somewhat from my lack of a personal organization system. I use e-mail as a substitute for a to-do list, and it doesn’t work as well as I would like.

    On another note, number 7 on your list is something I’ve been looking at implementing. Currently I have a popup that informs me when I have a new email, and I think it was a bad idea.

  • Benjamin

    A great set of tips. Another bad habit is using email as a way of avoiding dealing with an emotional confrontation. If it is going to cause a reaction, pick up the phone!

  • Jesse McNelis

    Top posting i.e the act of putting your reply above the previous email.
    Bottom posting i.e the act of putting your reply below the previous email.
    Both are irritating.

    For best results intermingle your reply with quotes from the previous email(cut out anything that isn’t needed) to provide context.eg.

    > did you get that fax I sent you about tommorrow?
    yes, I got it. It looks good but I’ve got a few changes I’d like to make.

    >pete said he can’t be there
    oh damn, I really wanted to meet him. Well better luck next time I guess.

  • Veign

    The one that bugs me the most, and I think is pretty rude, is not including the original email (or snippet) in a response.

    Its often you got back and forth with someone and sometimes have several emails ‘out’ waiting for a reponse. When they respond with a simple Yes or No and don’t include the original email you have no clue what they are responding to.

    Is it so hard to include the original email in a response? I think not.

  • Shanti Braford

    Excellent list, Scott!

    Here’s one that I would add, after having done a few stints working on my own & then worked for others again:

    Compose & respond to emails as if you were the business owner and it was your company, not just as if you were an employee. (this applies to things beyond email as well, of course)

    But I’ve found a few email personality types over the years (and to be honest, I’ve probably been members of both at various points in my career):

    * Mr. “would rather write long-winded emails than work” — this person will spend 30 minutes writing up a very long-winded email when a simple 5 minute telephone call would’ve done the trick. (relates to your #3)

    * Mr. “I’m too important or busy to bother with your emails” — this person believes they are basically too cool or better than you to have to wade through your questions or requests that come in via email. They may, interestingly enough, be perfectly cordial when prompted in person, but will 100% ignore things that come in via email. (unless perhaps you are their supervisor)

  • Troy

    Wonderful post. Something you didn’t mention is when people make simple spelling mistakes. It just annoys the hell out of me that they couldn’t take the few seconds to proof it.

  • Olaf

    Hi

    good article. Before I started reading I thought you would mention things in email where the reader might want to kill you, well, somehow you did. But I want to add some more:

    a) using TO: or CC: instead of BCC: –
    I really hate when people are sending my email address around the web to 50, 60 or even more people i have never heard of. This way my email address is bound be be geting spam some time soon.

    b) attaching large (huge) files (with no sense)
    Well, I am lucky and have a quite descent DSL connection. I am also using email to send results of work (like a database) to clients. I believe this is ok. What I mean here is that people think it’s ok to email some crappy presentation around, some pictures I have never asked for. Most of the time they are going straight into the trash.

    c) companies killing attachments without notice s*ck! I have been working with companies where I developed websites / databases. Usually I am sending those zipped to my person in the company. I have come to recognize, that there are companies that 1. delete attachments without letting anyone know. 2. delete attachments and the complete emails (!) without letting anyone know. Of course, the 2nd one is worse. In these cases I nowadays pick up the phone an let the person know “I just sent you the latest version – did you receive this?”
    Sometimes the 2nd happens only when you send .exe files. But I have come to understand, that many people can not handle zipped / rar / ace files. For this reason I often try to create a self extracting exe (which – see above – sometimes vanished with the complete mail).

    Olaf

  • picard

    I think you gave email a slightly worse than accurate rap, with regard to office communications. I generally favor it over the phone because its more efficient.

    But the main reason is little details that you tell me over the phone or face to face, I might forget! … but if it was in an email I can easily go back and get it without having to call you back & waste both of our time.

  • Gareth

    Another, simple, yet often overlooked point is the writing of email with caps lock turned on.

    This gives an impression of laziness or computer illiteracy to the recipient, not to mention being extremely annoying to some people, such as myself.

  • Bigneba

    Great advice. Yes, all emails read as hostile unless you write them to sound otherwise. Putting their name at the top and yours on the bottom goes a long way to help.

    Also, the CAPS button makes you sound crazy. Keep it off!

    Cheers!

    BN

  • Scott Young

    Great suggestions.

    Perhaps my preference of phone to e-mail isn’t as universal as I believed. I suppose it depends on how much back and forth feedback you need. A phone conversation can work great for a quick back and forth dialog, but poorly for specific requests than only require one or two e-mails to be exchanged.

    -Scott

  • Scott McArthur

    Let’s start a campaign to ban the Darth Vadar of email – the BCC!

  • 25+ Email Rules For Better Com

    The speed and ease of email enables you to jot off a quick emotional reply to a message.Once you click send , it’s gone – not like a letter that sits in the mailbox for a while – and you may regret it.So,consider letting emotional messages sit for a while before you send them. – at least overnight , and sometimes longer.

  • Chris Grayson

    I agree with gex, you forgot the biggest one of all. Lousy subject lines.
    (and people that indiscriminately hit REPLY ALL.)

    I’m usually juggling several accounts. I make my subject lines very specific.

    CLIENT NAME IN CAPS + Nature of the email

    There is nothing more annoying than an inbox full of emails that looks like:

    SUBJECT: the meeting
    SUBJECT: hey
    SUBJECT: next steps
    SUBJECT: hey Chris
    SUBJECT: [no subject]
    SUBJECT: the brief
    SUBJECT: RE: hey there
    SUBJECT: RE: RE: hey there
    SUBJECT: [no subject]
    SUBJECT: RE: RE: RE: hey there
    SUBJECT: RE: RE: RE: RE: hey there
    SUBJECT: RE: hey
    SUBJECT: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: hey there
    SUBJECT: RE: hey
    SUBJECT: RE: [no subject]
    SUBJECT: one more thing
    SUBJECT: RE: RE: hey
    SUBJECT: RE: RE: RE: hey
    SUBJECT: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: hey there
    SUBJECT: hey
    SUBJECT: RE: RE: RE: RE: hey
    SUBJECT: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: hey there
    SUBJECT: next steps
    SUBJECT: [no subject]
    SUBJECT: hey
    SUBJECT: read this!!!
    SUBJECT: forgot to tell you..
    SUBJECT: hey
    SUBJECT: [no subject]
    SUBJECT: next steps

    etc.

    Makes me want to strangle people.

    Or people that send you an email, and 2 minutes after they send the email, they call on the phone and ask, “Did you read my email yet?”

  • Laura

    I agree with Troy — misspellings drive me nuts. Not because I never make them — everyone makes them — but because people don’t turn on the automatic spell check and take 10 seconds to fix them.

    And I completely agree about using subject lines effectively. You can do things like, “Draft proposal attached; please review and respond by 5:00 PM 11/6/07” or “FYI: Changes to vacation schedule at holidays”.

    The first one tells you that an action is required of you and gives the deadline, making it easy to drag the email to your task list to create a next action. The second one is obviously lower priority and can be flagged for later reading.

  • Dan Markovitz

    Excellent points that everyone would do (very) well to remember. One more habit that I’d add to the list is the compulsion to CC: everyone in the company on irrelevancies. I suggest putting all the recipients in the BCC field, and in the body of the email listing all the people — that way you know who’s read the email, but it makes it way harder to hit reply all.

  • Jillian

    I’m with Olaf on the BCC thing. It really annoys me when someone I have trusted with a private email address copies it to a bunch of people I don’t know instead of putting it in the BCC field.

    I guess I’m just doomed to have an inbox full of winning lottery tickets and Nigerians wanting to give me money.

  • Anthony Russo

    Chris,

    I always follow up an e-mail thats important with a phone call. Not to see if it has been read yet, but to make sure it got through the SPAM filter. If not, I have no idea that it was received, and if it’s something they are expecting from me, I want them to know that I sent it and didn’t drop the ball on it.

    Anthony

  • Spike

    I’m with Gex. Lately, I’ve adopted a new policy: emails without a subject go directly into the trash. I’ve even set up a mail rule to do the dirty work.

  • Taylor

    > 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?

    Never. That’s like when a salesperson says ‘What time should I come by?” as in, not even giving you the option of declining. Most off-putting phrasing, so obnoxious.

  • HappyPanda

    “My guideline is that I shouldn’t send an e-mail if I need a response in less than five days.”

    Then what’s the point of e-mail?

  • Scott Young

    HappyPanda,

    5 days may be a bit long for a buffer. But I know many people who won’t get back to an e-mail in less time. If you expect promptness, give them a phone call first.

    -Scott

  • Albert | UrbanMonk dot Net

    Hey Scott – thanks for a good article, again. I’m particularly guilty of 4 and 7. Well, not really, I just get misunderstood a lot, even though I don’t try to be clever. Strange, huh. And I love getting email, but realised that it is one of my biggest time sinks.

  • John Whiteside

    “Not only do some people take days to respond to e-mails, you won’t be able to convey urgency in text.”

    The first point is valid, but the second will come as a surprise to writers with no exceptional skill who for years have managed to compose things like this:

    “Bob – we need to discuss several items regarding the Acme account. This is an urgent matter; we’re at risk of losing the business. The issues are summarized below; what time tomorrow can we discuss this?”

    Without ALL CAPS, even.

  • Joshua Thompson

    Hello,

    I know that you try very hard to help people break their bad habits. I have read a good amount of your work. I have my own that I am seeking to break…starting March 1st I’m going to be giving my day to day efforts on breaking my bad habits. I would love your help in getting people to participate in my journey. This will be very beneficial to all of the people in your system…I will be providing a lot of information and confidence to everyone. This is a great way for anyone with bad habits to have daily contact with the desire to fix their problems.
    This will be very uplifting yet very honest in my trials. I would love to put in and use any material and articles that you think would be very beneficial as well as any advice…I want to help anyone with a bad habit…ranging from the lowest to the highest of problems and issues. The website where this will all take place is http://burnthehabit.blogspot.c….

    Thank you so much,

    Joshua Thompson

  • Sandra

    Set times each day to answer and keep yourself by those limits. It will reduce distractions
    this chunk of information is very useful for me

    also advice to think whether to sent an e-mail in the first place or some other way is better (chat, phone…)

    thanks for sharing it

    my experience is that any important information should be in attach and not in the body of a mail and have Revision in the title
    also best result gives just one name in to field, if more persons there each of them thinks the other will give the answer

  • anon

    I just saw this posted somewhere else…

  • Jill

    One of my favorite customer service quotes is “Although your customers won’t love you if you give bad service, your competitors will.” -KATE ZABRISKIE

  • Nancy

    Good information here.
    Thanks

  • danielgrant

    So you perhaps start with SEO and then take appropriate steps swiftly to more realistic information. We offer a truly cost-effective SEO support for only $129 monthly and shift you up online ranking positions each 30 days or you don’t pay. We even business 100 % free SEO in come returning for percentage on web revenue with certain companies. Just contact to see if you are eligible. https://smdaybog.com/

  • danielgrant

    So you perhaps start with SEO and then take appropriate steps swiftly to more realistic information. We offer a truly cost-effective SEO support for only $129 monthly and shift you up online ranking positions each 30 days or you don’t pay. We even business 100 % free SEO in come returning for percentage on web revenue with certain companies. Just contact to see if you are eligible. https://smdaybog.com/

AS SEEN IN