Etiquette and the dangers of email

Email is a great communications method that is full of traps that can cause a person to hurt relationships and lose business. Five tips to avoid email blunders.

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Email is an integral part of business. It speeds our ability to communicate both during work hours and 24/7.

For all its benefits, email is a danger to our ability to build relationships and get business done. That may be the reason why email is the number one requested topic in our business etiquette seminar, even more than smartphone abuse. Email is at the top of the list over and over.

Emails are more than just the words on the screen. They also create an image of the sender in the recipient’s mind. Unfortunately, when all a recipient has to build that image is the words on the page, he or she is likely to perceive the tone of the message in a less positive way than which the sender intended.


Here’s how email can lead you astray and damage relationships.

1. Emails are public documents. Anyone may end up seeing an email that you thought was delivered in confidence. Remember the Bulletin Board Rule: If you wouldn’t post it on a bulletin board for anyone to read, then don’t email it.

2. Take care with the TO field. Auto-fill can end up having you send an inappropriate email to your boss whose name is Phil rather than to Phil your friend.

3. Take care with the SUBJECT field. You spend time making sure your message is well-written and then quickly dash off a few words in the subject field. Those few words are meant to entice the recipient to open the email. If the recipient doesn’t open the email, then all the effort to write the message was in vain. In addition, the subject field needs to be proofread as carefully as the message.

4. Proofread. When you send an email with mistakes in it, the image you create in the recipient’s mind is of a careless and, perhaps worse, mistake-prone person. She might think, “If he can’t even spell correctly, will he make mistakes working on my taxes?”


5. Remember the Who, What, When, Where Rule. Emails are good for communicating who, what, when, or where; but if you delve into opinion, or the why, or delivering bad news, you risk being misunderstood. When situations are difficult to explain, opt for a phone call, or better yet, a face-to-face conversation where your tone of voice and facial expressions can help the recipient interpret your words more accurately.

Delivering bad news via email is especially galling. Do an Internet search for “fired by email,” and you’ll find numerous examples of using email as a way to avoid confronting a person with bad news. The thrust of the articles is how firing a person by email is unethical and causes unnecessary hurt in an already hurtful situation. Whatever the bad news, the ethical, upright, responsible way to deliver it is in-person, or if that is simply not possible, then via a phone call.


If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to [email protected] You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at

Peter Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled etiquette issues in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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