Social media may have eclipsed email as the fashionable way to communicate in some circles (not Google Plus circles, because who really uses those?), but email remains a critical tool for small businesses and a principal means by which actual work gets done.
Although email has been a workplace mainstay for nearly two decades now, people still tend to look at it as an unpleasant, even aggravating chore. Part of this is due to the sheer volume of messages we typically have to trudge through on a daily basis, and another reason is that many of us have developed habits (often unintentionally) that impede efficient communication. At best, these habits make messages annoying. At worst, they can alienate your co-workers or your customers.
Here are five bad email habits that you should strive to avoid whenever possible.
Banish These Bad Email Habits
1. Abusing the Subject Line
It should go without saying, but we'll say it anyway: always include a subject, even if it takes a few extra seconds to craft one that's clear and concise. Clearly <no subject> does nothing to convey what a message contains or how urgently it needs to be addressed. Thus, omitting a subject is a good way to relegate a message to the recipient's "I'll read it later (maybe)" pile.
Note that some email clients will warn you before sending a message without a subject, but not all—Gmail, for example, does not. On the other hand, even if your message is only a sentence or two, don't put the whole thing in the subject line—your recipient will almost certainly have to open the message to read it, especially if he or she is doing so on a smartphone.
Also, resist the urge to reply to an old email when you need to start a new conversation on a completely different topic. This just causes needless confusion and makes searching through those messages later more difficult since the subject heading won't match the message content.
2. Requesting Message Delivery/Read Receipts
It's only natural to want verification that someone received and/or read your email, especially when you're engaged in correspondence that concerns deadlines or deliverables. But in most cases requesting delivery and read receipts won't provide the confirmation you're looking for.
Delivery receipts only indicate that your message reached the recipient's mail server—not that it actually made it to that person's mailbox (it can be filtered out as spam before it gets there, for example). Moreover, since delivery receipts provide a means for spammers to confirm that a targeted address is real, some servers simply ignore requests for them.
When it comes to read receipts things get even more dicey, because even if the feature is enabled at the recipient's mail server, it is seldom strictly enforced—that is, the recipient will typically receive a pop-up informing that you've requested a receipt and offering the option to send one or not. Think about that for a moment—you request a read receipt from someone (implying a lack of trust). That person sees that you've done so and chooses not to send the receipt. It doesn't make for a particularly healthy working relationship.
About the only situation where delivery and read receipts make sense is when used within an organization where these features have been configured by the IT staff to be automatic (i.e. recipients can't deny receipt requests).
3. Excessive Use of CC:
Although CC: is sometimes necessary to keep co-workers or other interested parties "in the loop" on correspondence, it tends to be overused, resulting it lots of messaging chaff that makes it harder to get to the wheat. Before overpopulating the CC: list of an email, stop and ask yourself whether each person really needs (or would want) to be included. Each person you can leave off the list will likely be spared a torrent of unnecessary messages—not just yours, but also all those that will inevitably result from people clicking Reply All either out of inattention or "just to be safe."
4. Not Maintaining an Out-of-the-Office Autoresponder
Few times are more hectic than immediately before or after an extended work absence, so it's no wonder people frequently neglect to turn on their out-of-the office autoresponder before they leave, or forget to turn it off once they're back. Another common problem occurs when people remember to turn on their autoresponder, but forget to update its contents so it still references a previous absence.
Another tip: when enabling an out-of-the-office autoresponder, double-check the settings to verify you're sending replies to all of your intended recipients. For example, Microsoft Outlook users who have a mailbox on a server running Microsoft Exchange have the option to separately activate and configure replies for people inside and outside the organization. People frequently activate the autoresponder for one group or the other when they mean to cover both.
5. Using Legal Disclaimers
We know how ubiquitous they've become—those email disclaimers that remind recipients that messages contain confidential information, and that if you receive the message by mistake you should immediately delete it, destroy all copies (as if that were even possible for someone that isn't a mail system administrator), gauge out your eyes, etc.
Simply put, such disclaimers are akin to a contract that's agreed to by only one person and thus (barring any changes to future case law) carry no legal weight. Plus, they're at the bottom of the message, so no one actually reads them anyway.
So unless you're an actual lawyer exchanging privileged information with a client or vice versa (in which case a legal disclaimer might actually mean something if included at the BEGINNING of a message) don't clutter up your e-mail (or anyone else's) with them. Besides, if you're communicating confidential information over email, you really should use encryption.
Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.
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