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E-mail etiquette 101 June 13, 2011

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices, Tech tips.

I received an e-mail from a translation agency today informing me that they have made some recent changes to their Vendor Portal. They sent the e-mail to all the vendors in their database. Do you know how I know this? I then proceeded to get e-mails from their vendors from all over the world because they hit Reply All simply to say “thank you” to the person who sent the e-mail. I’m about ready to set up an e-mail filter to filter the replies to that subject line straight to the Trash. I don’t have the time or energy to delete hundreds of e-mails today (and since this is one of the Common Sense Advisory’s “top 20 translation agencies” there must be thousands of vendors…).

Sounds like some professionals need some schooling in e-mail etiquette. Here are my top 15 e-mail etiquette tips. If I missed one please feel free to share in the comments.

1. Use a subject line. I hate receiving e-mails with no subject line at all. I can’t believe people still do this.

2. Understand the difference between To:, CC: and BCC:  and please use CC: and BCC: sparingly. And while I have your attention, don’t use Return Receipts on every single email. I decline them as a rule.

3. Do not hit Reply All unless you truly want to reply to every single person listed in the e-mail header. If one of the e-mail addresses is a generic one, do everyone a favor and delete it before you hit send.

4. Be polite at all times and be mindful of your tone. E-mail is a medium that too easily creates misunderstandings. Use sarcasm sparingly. If something gets “lost in translation,” you risk offending the other party. The more matter-of-fact you can be, the better.

5. Keep your e-mails brief and to the point. We all know people who write diatribes to listservs. I don’t know how they get any work done!

6. Reply in a timely manner. Even if it is a simple “thanks for your inquiry, but I am afraid I am booked up through the rest of the month.”

7. Don’t use e-mail to criticize others (or complain about a third party). Criticism is best conveyed in person or over the phone so that you can immediately mitigate any misunderstandings. Plus, you never know what might happen with your e-mail after you hit send and it arrives in the other person’s e-mail address. Worst case scenario: your e-mail will be forwarded to the third party in question. Ouch!

8. Don’t reply to an e-mail in anger. Write the e-mail and walk away from it for an hour or two (or a day or two) until you’ve had a chance to cool down. Better yet… vent your feelings by writing the e-mail and then hit Delete instead of Send.

9. Don’t forward chain letters. Nine times out of ten, the information is an urban legend. Just don’t do it! If in doubt, check it out at Snopes.com, a website devoted to tracking down and debunking urban legends and rumors.

10. Don’t write in ALL CAPS. This is the digital equivalent of shouting. No one likes to be shouted at.

11. Include your full name and contact information in your e-mail signature, but keep it to 4-5 lines. Also, if you are participating in a listserv please use your given first name so people know who they are dealing with. I have seen people sign their e-mails to listservs with an initial or, even worse, a pseudonym.

12. Don’t send or forward emails containing libelous, defamatory, offensive, racist or obscene remarks. It seems self-evident, but surprisingly it happens.

13. Remember e-mails aren’t private. E-mails sent to a listserv go to everyone on the list. E-mail can be intercepted and read by just about anyone if they choose to do so. Think of e-mail as being the equivalent of sending a postcard through the mail.

14. Use your spellchecker. Nothing reflects on a language professional worse than an e-mail riddled with grammar errors and typos.

15. Reread your e-mail before sending it. Better yet, read it out loud. Make sure you are communicating clearly and that no words have been accidentally dropped in your zeal to write down your thoughts.

For more e-mail etiquette tips, check out 101 Email Etiquette Tips. Your clients and colleagues will thank you!



1. Charlie Bavington - June 13, 2011

If I may make so bold, I would say “use a meaningful subject line”. One of my regular agencies used to send every email with the subject “Consultation”. Some would culminate in projects for me, others would not, which is fine and dandy and in the nature of things. But I was always a bit twitchy during email housekeeping in case I deleted the wrong “Consultation”.

Obviously that applies just as much to empty subject lines, but if we’re looking to make the email world a better place, we may as well aim as high as we can 🙂

pip pip

Jill (@bonnjill) - June 13, 2011

Yes! Good one, Charlie! I can get behind this one 100%.

2. Judy Jenner - June 13, 2011

Excellent list, dear Jill — completely agree. One practice that I’ve seen that I really like is when senders update the subject line with “Approved” or “More info requested” so you can see right from the subject line what the status of the project is. This is particularly helpful if one has exchanged multiple e-mails.

My personal pet peeve is “Dear Sir/Madam” and “My name is XYZ” (I can see the name in the “from”) field.

3. patenttranslator - June 13, 2011

An agency that calls me a Vendor and makes me go through a Portal is a company that is based on an exploitative business model that is incompatible with my business philosophy.

I prefer to work for people who know my name, or at least call me a “translator” if they send the same e-mail to several people.

Jill (@bonnjill) - June 13, 2011

Believe me, Steve, I do too. I think I’ve only done 1 job for this client, yet I’m in the vendor database anyway…

4. Madalena Sanchez Zampaulo - June 13, 2011

Great tips, Jill. I also appreciate just using a simple heading and closing as a rule. So many people send messages now without these, and it seems like simple etiquette just to include them. When I receive a really nice closing, such as “Warmly,” or “Best wishes,” I feel like they took more time and thought than just rattling off a message as if they were texting me (with no heading or closing).

5. Kevin Lossner - June 13, 2011

I second Charlie’s point. I have one beloved client – a dear lady, really – who titles every damned e-mail “Anfrage”. Good luck sorting out a week’s worth of those with replies criss-crossing. Her projects are often nearly indistinguishable from one another and, of course, she doesn’t believe in project numbers. Horror.

Jill (@bonnjill) - June 13, 2011

Ha! I know who you are talking about. Say hi to her from me 🙂

6. Riccardo - June 13, 2011

6a. If for any reason you do not reply in a timely manner, reply anyway, and apologize for the delay.

8a. If you can (i.e., if you work in the same room with a partner), have them read any important e-mail before sending them. It’s amazing how easy it is to be misunderstood – and heed your partner’s suggestions.

16. Learn how to use the “out-of-office” feature of your e-mail server(s) – and keep any out-of-office message up to date and to the point. Remember to turn off your out-of-office message when you return.

Jill (@bonnjill) - June 13, 2011

I agree wholeheartedly with number 16, Riccardo. Plus…

17. Use a separate e-mail just for listservs to avoid out-of-office autoreplies to everyone on the listserv.

7. Helen Cousins - June 14, 2011

Good List Jill. Some folk use email in lieu of an email marketing tool and use cc to distribute their email spam to a long list without your permission and without an opportunity to unsubscribe, thereby exposing you to even more spam. So, I would add to your list, don’t put people on a distribution list without permission and then bomb them with spam (which is what unsolicited email is). My guess is that we are preaching to the converted though, as spammers probably don’t read blogs on email etiquette 🙂
Good tips though and not just for spammers!

8. EP - June 16, 2011

That reread part is REALLY important. I’ve sent out some really dumb replies to mails because I hadn’t. I’d say reread your emails twice (at least).

Kelvets - September 6, 2017

For what it’s worth 6 years later, I’d like to point out that Gmail has a feature that holds your e-mail for up to 30 seconds after you hit send, allowing you to take it back in case you realize something just after sending. Has saved my skin a few times. It’s under Settings, General.

Jill (@bonnjill) - September 6, 2017

Wish WordPress offered that feature that I just posted but wanted to schedule for Friday. D’oh!

9. catherinetranslates - June 20, 2011

I get annoyed when people don’t complete the subject line or do not update it when the topic has changed. It wastes my time.

I can be guilty of sending emails without attaching the file. Of course I realize it half a second after hitting the send button and then have to write back to excuse myself and include the attachment.

Jill (@bonnjill) - June 20, 2011

We *all* do that, Catherine – PMs and translators alike.

10. Roman Mironov - July 20, 2011

Thank you for the 101, it’s very comprehensive. As to the return receipts, I think that your email client should have an option to send them out automatically, so that you will not even notice anything. Personally, I find this feature very useful when I send emails, as oftentimes I want to be sure that the recipient did receive my email, in particular a completed project.

11. Dan Hickman - January 8, 2020

It is always good practice to use your physical address in your email signature. Many junk/spam filters flag terms related to translation, and using an address is a good way to provide legitimacy to your email.

12. Reyna Rodriguez - January 3, 2021

Love all the feedback; especially since I often email interpreters regarding potential assignments. Nice to be reminded of all these simple yet important email etiquette best practices.

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