7 email habits that drive people nuts

Do co-workers ignore the sarcastic quips in your emails? Do you forget to respond to questions you get via email? If these sound familiar, read on.


Email is a shallow way to communicate.

It’s easy, fast and lacks the depth of understanding most people get from talking face to face. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize just how much of this understanding they lose by using email. As a result, they pick up bad habits and start driving co-workers, bosses and friends crazy.

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

1. Hanging questions

Any email 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 they leave requests or small questions completely unanswered. The problem here is that the sender has no idea whether you even read the message.

Here’s the fix:

  • Answer small questions immediately after reading. Get an auto-responder, or simply shorten emails to a few words if you’re facing a time-crunch.
  • Tell the person if you can’t answer their question yet. If you won’t know until the 15th, don’t wait until the 16th to reply.
  • For difficult or long-winded answers, tell the person you aren’t sure or 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 question or actionable information that is sandwiched between unimportant information is a buried request. Consider the difference between these two emails:

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 that with this:

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?

The first email buries the request in the second sentence. The second email repeats the request and gives it a new paragraph. Which one do you think is easier to read?

3. Wrong medium

Email 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 over the phone or in person. Trying to use email to have these conversations can be slow, time consuming and painful.

The solution is to bridge the email 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 email and pretend as if the receiver will take everything you say literally. Although a few metaphors can come across well in email, most don’t. The person on the other side can’t tell with what intensity or emphasis you typed the words. If anything is ambiguous, reword it or 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 email

My guideline is that I shouldn’t send an email if I need a response in less than five days. Not only do some people take days to respond to emails, but you can’t convey urgency in text. You can transmit the impending need of your request when you are on the phone or in person, but in text you can only resort to using CAPITAL LETTERS or exclamation marks!

6. Bulky paragraphs

People don’t read emails, they skim. So don’t write an eight-sentence paragraph in one chunk. Here are 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 email tag

This probably won’t bother other people, but it might stress you out enough to take it out on yourself. Don’t keep your inbox open to receive emails immediately as they arrive. Set specific times each day to answer emails, and keep yourself within those limits. This will reduce distractions, and it’ll force people who want to banter to pick up the phone and call you.

Scott Young blogs at ScottHYoung.com, where this article originally ran.

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