Skip to main content

Stop yourself from making egregious e-mail errors

Etiquette in today's digital world can be tricky. Andrea Bartz, left, and Brenna Ehrlich are here to help.
Etiquette in today's digital world can be tricky. Andrea Bartz, left, and Brenna Ehrlich are here to help.
  • Read the netiquette girls' advice on three big e-mail mistakes you're probably making
  • Be careful of recklessly BCC'ing and forwarding e-mails
  • Be courteous; it doesn't take much effort to type "thanks"
  • Have some tact and stop yourself from playing fascist dictator when replying

Editor's note: Brenna Ehrlich and Andrea Bartz are the sarcastic brains behind humor blog and soon-to-be-book Stuff Hipsters Hate. When they're not trolling Brooklyn for new material, Ehrlich works as a news editor at, and Bartz holds the same position at Psychology Today.

(CNN) -- Composing an e-mail is kind of like making out: Everyone assumes they know what they're doing, but in reality plenty of people could use some pointers.

We're all pretty much constantly sending missives around the web. In 2009, worldwide e-mail traffic amounted to 247 billion messages per day, according to market research firm Radicati.

But practice doesn't make perfect, and myriad senders are horrifying recipients every day.

Here are three big e-mail mistakes you're probably making. (Sorry, we can't do anything about your iguana-like kissing skills. Drag.)

Egregious e-mail error: Recklessly BCC'ing and forwarding

E-mail entry forms are not that complicated. We all understand how BCC (blind carbon copy) and Forward work. Why, then, do so many people persist in using them incorrectly -- awkwardly fumbling about in the internet ether?

Use BCC when you're e-mailing a gazillion people and you don't want to junk up their inboxes with the recipient list, and/or you don't need everyone to see everyone else on the list.

For example, if you're sending a mass e-mail to let your networking contacts know you're on the lookout for a new job, it wouldn't really be good form to give everybody the e-mail address of that big-shot VP your parents know. Also use BCC if you're giving a whole list of people bad news (e.g., that they didn't get a gig).

Last year, Twitter published the e-mails of scads of rejected job applicants. Awkwardness and tail-between-the-legs sheepishness ensued.

Do not use BCC to secretly let someone know an e-mail exchange is going down. You run the risk that the idiot will fail to notice he wasn't candidly CC'ed, in which case he can hit reply-all, blow your cover and create a situation so awkward, it rivals that walk of shame where you ran into your boss in the same clothes you wore to work the day before -- only backward.

The smarter way to loop a buddy in (say, you want to clue a co-worker in on a client's latest display of stunning idiocy): Reply to the client, then forward the whole exchange to your colleague. Just bear in mind that said recipient is going to read everything in the convo up until that point.

It's easy to be like, "Oh, we're talking about meeting up at Samson's, I'll forward this last one to Samson," forgetting that Samson is going to read six e-mails into your and Julie's personal e-mail exchange, where she reveals that last night's episode of "Friday Night Lights" really spoke to her about her and Jude's relationship problems.

Egregious e-mail error: Being a thankless jerk

In interoffice e-mails, especially, the purpose of an exchange is almost always to demand or supply information. In the give-and-take, you must remember the magic words your mom drilled into your head until you were huddled terrified in the corner, simpering into your Apple Jacks: please and thank you.

When you request something via e-mail and get back what you need, it's easy to think, "Oh, I won't clutter up his tremblingly overstuffed inbox with a pointless note of gratitude."

But if you say thanks as soon as you get the info, you won't throw off his e-mail-checking routine. Just try to respond quickly -- if it's been more than 20 minutes, skip the gratuitous gratitude and tack the thanks on to the next e-mail volley. ("I appreciate your sending me those survey results last week. I'd like to set up a meeting to discuss...")

If you're the one providing the info, don't just paste it into the body of an e-mail and hit send without salutations or a sign-off. That just makes it sound like you're pissed off to have to help.

"Here you go, thanks" takes three seconds to type, and prevents resentment from brewing in the bowels of your coworkers. Leave that to pay cuts, the hellish drone of fluorescent lights and increasingly bizarre money-saving schemes.

Egregious e-mail error: Playing fascist dictator

Show of hands: How many of you under-30s have ever received the following e-mail from a higher-up?


It's typically a response to your e-mail or a forward of something someone else said, right? And yeah, it feels like a nauseating shot of Wild Turkey and makes you momentarily hate your boss, right?

Now imagine sending that same e-mail to your boss: She sends a note giving you a completely unrealistic new deadline, say, and you just hit Reply and give that question mark three jabs. Ridiculous, right?

My friend even had a higher-up pepper a message with comic book-style cuss words: "There's no way I'm calling another #&$% meeting..." Classy.

The rule here is simple: Address your employee the same way you'd address your boss. Unless you're still a two-finger typist, "I'm not clear why this hasn't been taken care of. Can you please send me a status report? Thanks," is not an onerous message to compose.

If you're especially bad at judging how your e-mails come across, there's ToneCheck, a (slightly silly) plug-in that flags harsh phrases. If you can prevent your workers from feeling like Bazooka gum on the bottom of your shoe, surprise! -- they'll actually want to impress you. Kissing ass is a whole lot easier to master than the other kind.


Most popular Tech stories right now