Why Emails Should be Short Instead of Nice

54 Comments

We’re suffering from outdated rules and expectations about email that don’t work in our email-saturated world. Perhaps short emails without extra niceties are not just acceptable but preferable in our connected world on the web. Now that we have better ways of connecting on a human level (think IM, IRC, blogging) maybe we can put email back into its rightful place as merely a convenient way of communicating when we don’t have a real time connection, and not a means of creating intimacy or relationships.

Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian bemoans bogus email intimacy:

Perhaps, rather, the bizarre intimacy of strangers and colleagues in emails to me is symptomatic of a broader social malaise – namely we don’t know how to begin, and, worse yet, we don’t know how to end our emails. What’s more, because email is such a casual means of communication, it privileges those who prize informality. What happened to “Dear Sir”, “Yours faithfully” and the bracing pleasures of a firm handshake? I ask. They died, you reply, but nobody bothered to tell you, granddad.

Everyone’s so worried about offending by email that they try to make it more human and more friendly at the cost to everyone’s productivity, without a great increase in human connection. While short snappy emails and short snappy replies might come across as curt, research suggests that such messages lead to the highest productivity. That’s because short emails are easy to handle. They keep communications moving along in a way that long emails don’t.

But is higher productivity an acceptable tradeoff for what might be perceived as rudeness? In a world of connected productivity, you can get away with apparently brusque email messages because people will know you through other channels, channels that are better at building intimacy and connection. Email no longer bears the weight of our virtual interactions. Compared to chat, email’s horrible at building connections.

Email unfortunately suffers from its likeness to mailed letters — but it differs in an important respect, that people can send out hundreds or thousands of emails every day while no one could write that many letters. Teenagers of today may approach email more like instant messaging than like snail mail, and that might be just what our email overloaded work culture needs.

Of course, there will be many situations in which you’ll tread with utmost politeness: contacting a potential new boss, looking for new work, approaching your favorite author online. And preferring brevity over niceties doesn’t mean rudeness is okay. But for getting work done on a daily basis, we could all benefit from an email etiquette that calls for short and to-the-point messages.

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54 Comments

Patrick

Good, clear writing will never be out of style because it serves a purpose. That doesn’t imply that it has to be overly-friendly.

Poor writing often reflects poor thinking and can require extra work just to determine what is meant. I worked for a company that used short, quick notes via e-mail. I found that they often had to be retracted or clarifying e-mails had to be sent so people could understand the first one.

E-mail may not require the same formality as written letters, but like letters, they can be easily archived.

Mike

Sorry to double-dip in the comments, but how about something as old as the hills and wisdom that has served the test of time: To Each His Own. For there to be a “right” way and a “wrong” way to use a communications medium is like saying postal mail “should be (fill-in-the-blank), or “telephone calls should be less than one-minute long – people are busy,” we could go on and on. “To Each His Own,” in this context means use the technology in a way that best suits YOU and remember that “rules” —- are meant to be broken.

Chris

Long emails just like long comments get nothing more than a scan of the eye without a full digesting of the content.

Wolfie

In a business context, now that we have to by law include all sorts of company information, the email is going to be longer anyway; you might as well be polite while you do it.

I would be in favour of shorter emails in this context except for one thing; in my experience clarity seems to get forgotten. I’d much rather have a longer email that is concise and clear, than a short one that is not clear and requires several follow-up emails to clarify.

Those of you not worried about a short email appearing rude or curt should be; that is how you’ll be perceived if you do not already have a relationship with the person to whom you’re sending the email (and often even if you do). As a customer, I want businesses to treat me with respect; that includes writing me a proper letter – even if they’re going to email it to me. As someone who deals with customers, I give them the same service I would expect to receive if I were in their position.

In a personal context, all previous rules can be forgotten. I don’t expect my friends to write me formal emails and they don’t expect it from me. I do still expect clarity, though.

nitinrohidas

@JACK

No one compells to use “Sincerely Yours stuff ” nowadays..i used it when i was taught in the so called grammar school.

As of now..we use “Warm Regards”,”Regards” or a simple “thanks” which always suffice .
As far as greeint is concerned ,I use simple “hi @name” or only “@name” depending on the situation.

Jack

I don’t mind folks trying to personalize their e-mails just a bit in the body of the message. But even though I’m old enough to have learned how to write real letters back in school, I’ve always questioned some of the salutations and closings. For example, we were taught to write “Dear Sir” even though the recipient might be female, because back then a woman wasn’t supposed to feel slighted by being addressed as a male. Then later on, people started using things like “Dear Sir or Ma’am” – but Ma’am is a contraction of “Madam” which in our society has a rather unsavory connotation (it isn’t the 1930’s anymore, folks).

We were taught to close a letter with “Yours Truly” or “Sincerely Yours.” To me this always seemed a bit silly when you were writing a large corporation requesting a catalog or some such thing. Just because I might have been asking Sears for a catalog did not mean I was “theirs truly”, nor that I was the least bit sincere about anything other than my desire to get the stupid catalog. It seemed to me like those types of closings should be reserved for intimate letters, but everyone considered them too formal for personal letters (huh?). So I guess I am saying that I thought the rules were stupid when I was taught them as a kid back in the 1950’s, and I’m not the slightest bit sorry to not have to be burdened with them in e-mail.

Nowadays, if I get an e-mail that begins “Dear Sir” I almost immediately click the trashcan icon without reading further. The reason is that I know my friends and the people I really want to hear from don’t use such formalities, but spammers and people trying to pass themselves off as heirs of dead Nigerian princes do. If you really want to read e-mails with proper salutations and closings, and just bubbling with all sorts of flowery language, send me your e-mail address and I’ll forward you all my spam!

annean

“Never ever think emails are an electronic version of a letter. Emails and SMS messeges are now converging. With Blackberys being used for emails, how can you poosibly write long letters?”

Emails are what people wish to make them, not something that they should be “told” is true. Never ever think? Don’t give me that.

When people want to send an SMS they’re usually in a hurry, and want to say what they have to in as small amount a space as possible. SMS is more like IM than it is email.

Personally I prefer my emails like my letters (aka snail mail); not succinct and to the point as in IM. I enjoy reading lengthy emails, and those that email me on a regular basis know that I prefer it… I enjoy well written letters/emails that focus on grammar, spelling and vocabulary. Emails that are well structured, and obviously well thought out. All things that I’m finding are becoming “Forgotten Arts”, alongside such things as coopering and thatching.

If you want to have shorter communications with me, you’d best be prepared to use IM. And my friends all know it. In such instances its like having a phone conversation, and you’re less formal. And the only place where I’ll tolerate (barely) l33t. Its like having a real time conversation on the phone, with slight delays of course and having to read rather than listen.

Long emails for the win!

Sampath Dassanayake

Never ever think emails are an electronic version of a letter. Emails and SMS messeges are now converging. With Blackberys being used for emails, how can you poosibly write long letters?

I personally find myself prone to acting upon a short meial rather than a long email. A long email prompts me to read and respond to it rather than to take action!

nitinrohidas

the logical thing to do is…wat we do..

if an email is more abt data…and facts then no probs..

but if its related to complain or making an argument or arriving on some consenus
then have a conference call…talk on phn…

some things needs to be discussed instead of communicating wid email..

those who follow this approach can never write long mails …

rationalpsychic

Bollocks to your rationalized means to an end. Dismiss your social obligation to show a nicety here and there. Center your attention upon your own wish to dispense with messages to and from others with the greatest speed possible.

There are more words in the American English dictionary now than fifty years ago, not fewer. I would suggest that we haven’t the desire to make more time to spend upon our communication (this could be speech and writing as well as images selected to tell a story).

Don’t tell me you’re just riding upon the train of technology and you have to go wherever the tracks lead you–there’s going to be a river to cross at some point and maybe this time there won’t be a bridge in place. How much faster can the technology of our communications go before it leaves our electro-chemical brains in the dust? It’s not the speed of processing that makes us the fabulous creatures we are but the depth and breadth.

Yours,
Rationalpsychic
rationalpsychic.wordpress.com

Matthew Lowes

It all depends on the context of the email. If I am contacting somebody for the first time to ask that they review a manuscript for possible publication, you better believe I’m going to be polite and formal and to the point, just like a good business letter. If it’s a long time friend or coworker, who hopefully already knows I’m nice guy, then I can afford to be more abrupt with my point.

Mike-2

In the interest of productivity, I will outline the many absurdities in this article in bullet form and dispense with social niceties.

1. Short emails and polite emails are not mutually exclusive.

2. Many people don’t use im, irc, blogs, so email is the primary means of human connection.

3. Formalities such as ‘Dear Sir’ do not create intimacy, they are formalities that people generally ignore.

4. It’s absurd to pretend that your tone in email should be exempt from being evaluated for what kind of person you are.

5. This article is fundamentally dishonest. Superficially, it seems to be about how the author gets too many emails and wishes they were shorted. In fact, this is about how the author doesn’t want to waste time writing emails that take into account other people’s stupid feelings.

6. The research that supposedly backs up the author’s contention does no such thing.

——-

This post can be quickly summarized as follows: the world would be an engineering paradise if it weren’t for all the people in it. In a perfect world, people wouldn’t have feelings, and wouldn’t mind that I am completely self-absorbed. Being held responsible for my interactions with others affects my productivity, and I want to offload those costs on to others.

Chris

Hear, hear. Good balance is the key.. However, a pox on the one word email reply. If it takes me longer to open the email than it takes to read it, i feel as though the time could’ve been better spent..

CestlaGuerre

As in most things a good balalnce is what we should be shootin’ for. Being too short means not enough context which results in mis-cues, too long means wasting time or not being read at all. Email is not different to speech, everyone loves to talk but few listen. For some people this tendency verges on mania.

Mike

I have to chuckle at people who say that, “Dear Sir,” or “Kindest Regards,” are such time-wasters, yet these same people spend hours with their RSS feeds, blogs, MySpace pages and the latest Web 2.0 “productivity” applications. (Our web toys.)

So many things in our connected culture have removed the humanity from our lives. The suggestion that short three word salutations, closings, etc. be removed from emails (oh, the inconvenience!) is just another idea that would have the effect of de-humanizing and disconnecting us from the real world. I don’t think a world in which we are all just bots communicating information back and forth is a better world – it just brings us closer to a world in which I, for one, would rather not help bring about. But, alas, I fear I am in the minority as being kind and anything less than a free-for-all on the Wild Wild Web is simply not being “productive.”

The Internet has brought us many great things. The incivility and cold, brazen anonymity, bringing us closer to a culture of mass dissociative disorder — is not one of them.

ECT

If all you need to do is leave a quick, to-the-point message, why waste time with email at all? Instant Messaging and group chat are quickly becoming the defacto means of communication in the workplace. With enterprise solutions popping up all over the place offering things like AD integration and compliance archiving, it makes absolutely no sense to clog email boxes with endless ‘reply to’ chains of one line emails. Just fire up MOC, MindAlign, Jabber, whatever.

Juggling Frogs

I just finished working on a complex project with someone across town. We had multiple e-mail threads going about multiple issues, resulting in a dozen e-mail interactions a day for over a month.

She drove me batty with her blackberry-induced half-sentence responses. The subject was always the name of the whole project. The body texts were often “what do U think?” or “okay,” or “let’s discuss”.

Three e-mails and a phone call were required to track down which thread she meant. Back in the days of the telegram, when people received one cryptic message a month (at most), there might have been time to puzzle over the meaning of a single word message.

The niceties discussed above give clarity and context. I think they save and frustration.

Anne Zelenka

Elise: you’re right, there aren’t any blanket rules to be applied. For my own email life, I’d love it if the default was short to-the-point emails with everything else optional. I really like short emails and I get so many long ones! Especially from PR people… but that’s a different topic.

Kevin

Curt is the way to be in emails. Numbered lists for what you want done and no fluff.

Elise

I don’t think that you can really apply a blanket statement about pleasantries in email being bad in a work setting. I don’t think people who would be in sales and marketing would benefit by dropping all of the pleasantries in their emails. Their job revolves around forging relationships and trust, and pleasantries help them do that.

I do agree that a lot of people out there don’t know the difference between sending email to someone in their company versus sending email to a relative or friend. This, however, is the result of people not understanding (or knowing) netiquette.

Anne Zelenka

@Juggling Frogs: I don’t think it’s the salutations and closings in themselves that are hard on productivity, but those are symbolic of the overall attempt to build relationships and be friendly and polite in email instead of just getting to the point. That doesn’t sound like a bad thing until you multiply it by the hundreds of email some people receive every day. Now that we have better ways of social grooming and building intimacy, we don’t have to put that pressure onto email.

It would be so much easier if there was some general understanding that email communications aren’t curt or brusque just because they don’t have niceties you’d find in a written letter.

Bob Grommes

You can write a tight, to-the-point, eloquent, clear message body, but if it’s longer than two sentences, in my experience it’s usually going to get mis-read or not read at all. We’re talking the MTV generation here folks, and worse, the iPod-and-Blackberry generation. The attention span has gone completely to hell and few jobs afford people time to think.

For most recipients, write what you want, but assume only the first and last sentences will actually be paid attention to. If that. Re-read the first and last sentences by themselves before sending, and make sure they don’t convey completely the wrong idea.

Juggling Frogs

I doubt that salutations and closings destroy productivity. The time wasting text is usually in the message body. The rules of polite correspondence haven’t changed. It was never correct to blather on and on in a business letter.

It’s not “Dear Sir:” that people object to reading. The grumbling is about paragraphs of off-topic small talk, instead.

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