Email etiquette

25th Sep 2016 | Freelancing, Tips & Tutorials

Trying to get tone of voice across in text can be pretty difficult, but there are certain methods you can use in order to keep your messages sounding nice and friendly. This doesn’t just go for work emails, but the same could be said for texting friends and family etc.

If you’re in too much of a rush to give any real thought to how you’re wording a message, then the person on the other end may end up interpreting it in a completely different manner to how you intended, just because of one little mistake in there.

Let’s focus on work emails for the purpose of this blog post. It can be surprising just how many mistakes your messages can have in them until you give them a read over before sending. It might be a typo, or it might be the overall tone of the message doesn’t sound right (maybe it sounds too negative).

If I look back at old emails from when I first started taking on freelance jobs (especially those from before I started freelancing full time) I find the tone of my messages often sounds quite different to the kind of emails I send these days. I like to think these days my messages sound quite friendly whereas I think back then they might have come across as a bit cold as well as just too formal for my liking.

Without further ado, here are a few things I like to keep in mind when sending messages…

Proof reading

This one should be pretty obvious and is also the most important of all. As mentioned earlier, you’ll most likely be surprised at some of the mistakes that might be in your emails. If you send a message without double-checking how it’s worded, you might get the wrong tone across and could even end up massively insulting your client as a result of you making a single typo or a case of autocorrect gone wrong.

Tone of voice

I remember once meeting up with a lady to talk about some design work she needed doing, not long after I started freelancing full-time. In person she was really nice, very friendly and generally one of those ‘would never hurt a fly’ type people. Her messages on the other hand, sounded completely different, whether this was in email or sometimes texts.

They sounded quite negative and fairly emotionless, which was the complete opposite to when I’d met her in person or spoken on the phone. It was obvious to me that she was just the type that was unaware of things like tone-of-voice in messages, and so she hadn’t given it much thought when wording them. So for this reason I didn’t think anything of it. Should I had not spoken to her in person or on the phone however, I probably would have thought she was really unhappy with the work I’d been doing.

That’s not to say she was the only client I’ve had that experience with, but is probably the most notable example.

So that’s another thing to keep in mind, read your message back to yourself and try to imagine how it would sound if it were somebody else sending that message to you. Does it sound negative, or even worse, aggressive? Then it’s probably a good idea to reword it!

[No Subject]

Not entering a subject just looks lazy… worst of all it can make it hard to find the right email in your inbox if there’s a bunch of others to sift through from the same sender. Also be sure to write one that briefly describes what is it your talking about. Emails with subjects such as ‘stuff’ are only marginally better than leaving it blank.

It only takes a couple seconds to give the email a subject.

Hang on a sec…

This goes for messages that are more emotionally-driven, it is often a good idea to wait before sending messages like this (provided you have time). Maybe you’re losing patience either with a client or a supplier that you feel is messing you around, and need to cool off a bit before sending anything too heated. If you send it in the spur of the moment, you may regret it.

It’s easy to think that you’re in the right and it’s they who are wrong, but that may not always be the case. Maybe you didn’t do a very good job of briefing a supplier properly on what they were supposed to do, or maybe the client that is hassling you actually has a good reason for it. It could be that you’ve not understood their needs properly or maybe you’re too focussed on what looks better in your portfolio and have forgotten about what is best for them.

Have a think about this before sending anything, and keep in mind that it’s always better to remain calm and assertive. Also ask yourself, is this something you’d say to their face? If not, you’re probably better off not sending it as a message. Otherwise it could also make things really awkward the next time you speak in person.

As a side note, I often do this even when writing blog posts… I’ll normally take time out and then come to read it again later on or the next day. Not so much because I feel the need to initially word my blog posts really aggressively, but nevertheless I’ll still find myself stripping chunks of text out thinking “I can’t believe I was gonna word my post like that…”

Pick up the phone

To continue from the previous section, it’s sometimes better to just clear things up over the phone. For my line of work, I tend to stick with email the most by far, I just find it easier for the kind of projects I work on. But going back-and-to over a short space of time can often be stressful for both parties, especially if you keep misunderstanding each other, and so a quick chat over the phone can often be the best way to clear things up.

I find it can be far easier to get wound-up when communicating purely by email simply as a result of either party misinterpreting things.

Make it friendly


I once read quite a clever tip about including smiley faces in work emails. Something I’d never considered myself in the past as I thought it could look a bit unprofessional. As mentioned earlier, tone of voice can be hard to get across in text, and even when you word everything carefully it can still be open to interpretation. Including smileys is a good way to show the recipient that everything is cool. Maybe you suspect that the client might be worried that they’re starting to become a bit of a pain, in which case feel free to whack a smiley face somewhere in the message.

Exclamation marks

I also use exclamation marks an awful lot in emails as it makes it look less formal, or at least that’s how I see it anyway! (see what I did there?)… Be sure to not include any more than one exclamation mark (maybe two) at the end of a sentence otherwise I think it just looks a little tacky, for example:

  1. “I’ll get that to you for tomorrow morning!”
  2. “I’ll get that to you for tomorrow morning!!!!!!!”

In my opinion, number 2 looks a little bargain-basement-esque, the kind of thing you might expect on a special offers banner at a pound shop… either that or it looks like you’re about to burst a blood vessel out of sheer anger. Number 1, to me, looks friendly and informal.

Tailor your emails to the recipients

Obviously don’t go overboard on the smiley faces or exclamation marks and add them to the end of every sentence. I find I tailor each email to the client. For those clients who do seem more serious and formal, chances are I’ll worry less about the email sounding super-friendly and laid back and adopt a slightly more serious tone.

I imagine in a few years from now I’ll look back at my emails from around this time, along with this blog post, and cringe…

Do you have any little tricks to keep in mind for the tone of your messages? Let me know in the comments!

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