UX Librarian: Be Nice - Email Etiquette In Libraries and the Workplace

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Be Nice - Email Etiquette In Libraries and the Workplace

If you are like me, you work in a small rural library and you depend on other librarians and library professionals for advice, communication, and work. I receive and send probably a few dozen emails every single day. Email and the Internet is my link to the larger outside world. But sometimes, email senders (who learned to type on typewriters) forget that their words have more weight and meaning when they are sent without physical, facial, or tone inflection cues. Emails stand alone in their communication and it is important that the tone of your emails be carefully scrutinized before pressing the 'Send' button. Email etiquette is important especially if you want to be taken seriously as a human being and professional. You can also think of each email communication as a little bridge-building exercise. It is much better to build bridges than to burn them.

Please and Thank You

When you were a child one of the first things your parents taught you was how to say 'please' and 'thank you'. Every email that you send out should also include these magic words. These are social niceties that smooth the way for a successful interaction with others.

Descriptive Subject

The subject of an email is important because if someone is scanning their email inbox they may better prioritize what to read first. Also, this helps you and the recipient organize your emails. Keep the subject brief but it should also reflect the main communication point of your email.


Many people do not bother with a 'Dear So and So' in their emails but this kind of standard greeting can go a long way in how the body of your email is received. You wouldn't just pick up the phone and start talking to someone. You would make sure you have that person's attention by addressing them properly. The salutation serves the same purpose. If this is a work colleague with whom you work on a regular basis a first name is fine. If you are addressing an unknown person in a higher position you may want to address them as Ms. or Mr. (And yeah, it's the 21st century. No one uses Miss or Mrs. anymore in my world.) I like to use a Hello or Hi as a salutation. In more formal situations you may use Dear.

The Email Body

Be brief and to the point in your email, but also proceed courteously. Ideally, you are communicating with someone for a reason. You want something. You need something. You are trying to communicate or persuade. Do so being mindful of that person's time by writing succinctly, but warmly, about the purpose of your email. If your email is longer than a few paragraphs you might want to consider a phone call. If you are writing about a touchy or controversial topic, again, you may want to make this communication a phone call not an email.

Never demand. Never use the word 'never'. Use emoticons to express warmth if you are communicating with a colleague. Never write in ALL CAPS. On the Internet, this is the equivalent of yelling.

Emails and Emotions

Never send an email when you are mad. Sit on it for 24 hours before you hit the 'Send' button. And what do you do about evil emails? Emails that are condescending, accusatory, impolite, or completely off-base? Don't respond. Ever. Unless it is your boss, in which case you should look for a better boss. Good managers and supervisors know how to communicate kindly and effectively to their employees and treat them well at all times. IF you have to respond to an impolite, rude, or threatening email, keep it brief and to the point. Don't take the bait and start an email war of words. You have bigger and better things to do than sort out the rude and impolite.

When finishing an email go back and read it over. Practice reading it aloud in your head. This will help you catch typos and misspellings and will also help you identify the tone of your email. Is it friendly? Is it kind? Have you said what you wanted to say? Have you asked for an appropriate response? Consider your words very carefully.

The Carbon Copy (CC) and Blind Carbon Copy (BCC)

Think carefully before you CC and/or BCC someone on an email. If you are just trying to make communication efficient by communicating the same thing to many people, that is fine. If you constantly copy someone's boss on every email, you lose trust and humanity points. This is a form of bullying and strong-arming, especially if it is done by equals or someone in a service capacity. Sometimes, this is the workplace form of tattle-tailing. Use the BCC sparingly and to make a point. Don't make a habit of it.

The Closing

I have read many different writer's opinions on the closing of a professional email. Everyone has a different style. Acceptable closings include: Sincerely, Truly Yours, Best, Thank you, and Regards.

The Signature

Use the auto format available in every email interface to create a consistent and professional signature. Include your name, business, address, phone number, web address, and any other information that you want the public to know. Some people like to include a brief, meaningful quote after their signature which I usually like, but don't include a long quote or more than one. Too much info.


Don't spend a lot of time making your email or signature appear as orchid pink in a fancy or script font. Most people have an email interface that will make your email hard to read and you will also appear less professional. Sometimes, less is more.


Limit your attachments in number and size. Remember that most email servers choke on anything over 10MB and some people may have older and slower machines. Other email servers automatically tag emails with attachments as spam. Be mindful of this and don't overload an email with more than one or two small attachments.

The Reply

If you have received an email that requires a response (and is nice) respond within 24 hours. Same day response is ideal but not always possible. If you are sending an email reply late, don't be afraid to apologize.

That is my quick tutorial on effective, kind, and polite email etiquette. You don't have to use any of these ideas, but remember that people will judge you by your email tone and be less likely to answer or work with you. Practice making your emails professional yet conversational. By using social graces you will have higher productivity and more success in your professional endeavors. As librarians, media specialists, and professionals our goal is to work together to get things done. As nonprofit entities we need to collaborate and cooperate, not compete or feud. Want more guidance? Here is a great article by Laura Stack written for Microsoft.

Speaking of email, if you need help setting up an email account, learning how to organize your emails, or learning how to forward or attach photos, stop by the Pioneer Memorial Public Library in Harman, WV. I would be glad to help you!

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