The Long and Short About Business Email Etiquette
- by David Sable
As medical students, our first surgical procedure consisted of snipping the two ends of the suture after the surgeon had tied a knot. Simple enough, except the surgeon was never satisfied.
He or she tied. We snipped.
We then heard one of two things: “Too long,” or “too short,” never “just right.” And soon we asked (silently): “Do you want me to make it too long or too short?”
Sending email is like snipping the ends of a suture.
As a platform for promoting misunderstanding, misinterpretation and baseless suspicion in the business world, email is without equal.
Half the world considers email quickly delivered formal letters. The other half sees email as slightly more cumbersome instant messages. Let’s call the first group traditionalists and the second group modernists.
A typical email-sabotaged interaction goes like this. A traditionalist sends a long email, complete with header, signoff and formal signature containing name, company name, company address, company phone number (office, fax, mobile), email address, alternate email address, corporate logo and signature quote at the bottom (“Make every day count!”). The modernist reads the email in good faith, interprets the message and responds.
With one word.
The one word may be an appropriate, accurate and helpful response to the initial email; however, the traditionalist fails to infer the good-faith reading, the thoughtful interpretation or the mental work that went into the response. Instead, the traditionalist sees a lot of white space and interprets the concise response as an indifferent shrug, or a set of rolled eyes.
The traditionalist responds with a second email, this time adding just a touch of annoyance, condescension and impatience. The modernist receives what, to him or her, is version two of the same message that has already been read in good faith, carefully interpreted and to which a response has already been sent—so what’s with the angry tone?
When transitioning from medicine to the business world, I was struck by just how differently email is used in the two industries. In medicine, I emailed my patients frequently. Each email, and each response, became part of the patient’s medical record. The medical record is a permanent document, is rightfully the patient’s property, and should accurately reflect the communication that the patient and I shared.
Few doctors used email at the time. Either they communicated with patients in person or on the phone, or confidentiality rules had not been standardized, or lawyers warned us regarding email potentially being used as evidence in malpractice cases. Those of us who did communicate with our patients by email, or communicated with other doctors about our patients in place of form letters, constructed our emails as formal letters.
Fast-forward to my initiation into the business world, particularly the rapid, multitasking, attention span-challenging world of equity trading, when suddenly my long, carefully constructed, syntactically and grammatically pristine email communication was routinely answered with a four-word or less combination of the following terms:
Will noodle & get back
More complic …
You get the idea.
Trying hard to adopt the norms of my new career, I altered my email style and tried to get more and more concise. Unfortunately I overdid it, responding to everything with a single exclamation point, question mark or blank page with my initials at the bottom. That strategy proved to be a bit too concise.
So I devised another strategy. The first time I email a new business acquaintance, I ask a simple question:
When I respond, do you want it long, or short?