How to (Properly) Compose an Email

Warning:  I wrote this in anger.  I had just received an email from a girl twelve years my junior who demanded things I could not give her and did not have any manners.

Second Warning: I wrote this after reading The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell.  It’s a book I highly recommend, but I do realize that not every young person is narcissistic, entitled, and rude.  However, the girl I mentioned above was all of those things.

You’ve been warned!

public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

As a college instructor, I have occasion to receive emails from students.  These messages tend to reflect the younger generation’s inability to communicate effectively.  However, more concerning is the disrespect shown when attempting to converse with an adult.  The emails tend to lack salutation and regard for the receiver’s feelings or schedule.  They also reveal an entitlement and narcissism that is characteristic of teenagers and young adults.  This frustrating communication prompts me to share the following written communication techniques that youth should learn in order to effectively communicate with older and more educated and experienced adults.

  1. Start with a salutation. This can be anything from the person’s name to a term of endearment, such as “Dear.”
  2. Using an appropriate title for the receiver, such as “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Dr.,” or “Professor” is also a good idea.  Such usage shows and implies respect for the other person.
  3. Continue showing respect and regard by starting your email with a simple “I hope this email finds you well” or “How are you?”  If you know the receiver more personally, asking after their family or a recent vacation is also appropriate and shows that you care.
  4. State your business.  Ask a question if that is the purpose for the email, or convey the appropriate information if you need to inform them of something.
  5. Use words of gratitude or sincerity.  “Please” and “thank you” are probably the two most effective words/phrases for making sure the person knows you appreciate their time.  Such words also lessen a demanding tone that sometimes comes across in emails.
  6. Use complete sentences, correct spelling, good grammar, and appropriate punctuation.  If you don’t know how to do so, take a class.  Educate yourself.
  7. Do not use all CAPS!  It comes across as yelling.  If you are trying to convey yelling and anger, perhaps you should take a moment to relax, do some yoga, drink some tea, or go to therapy before attempting to contact other people (especially those you don’t know well) by email (or at all).
  8. Close your email with respect.  A closing paragraph could include another expression of gratitude.  Also, sign off with your name, and do so with “Sincerely” or “Thank you” or “Cheers” preceding it.

Another issue with student emails is timing.  They tend to send emails after they have missed class or an assignment.  Instead, courtesy dictates that students advise their instructors before being absent, unless circumstances do not permit, such as a car accident or family emergency.

I’m not sure what has caused the decline in respect and courtesy in written communication.  It could be the so-called age of entitlement, or it could be technology’s long reach and lightning speed.  Whatever the cause, there is a solution.  As the old saying goes, “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Have you ever been assaulted by email?  Would you add any steps to my suggestions above?

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51 thoughts on “How to (Properly) Compose an Email

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  1. It’s not only young people who have this problem. I am one twenty-something that tends to be overly formal in emails, but I’ve been very surprised by a few emails I’ve received from people belonging to an older generation, people whom I find very courteous in person and respect very much. It was like all the rules were nonexistent when we communicated via an electronic medium. I’m not sure if they thought suddenly the normal rules don’t apply because of this new-fangled internet, or if they’d received so many ill-conceived communications like the one you’ve mentioned that they gave up, and thought that was just how it worked.

    1. Good point! It is NOT just younger people. I think we all tend to feel some sort of anonymity online so we act a little less decent. Or, I like your theory: that they gave up after seeing everybody else doing it that way!

  2. I absolutely agree with you. This is something I will have to share with my students. I also deal with administration at the university, and when they email me, I sometimes question whether or not they read what they typed. My students also do the craziest things. One time this student said the words “final grade” asking me to email them their final exam grade. There was no hello, and there was no question. just “final grade”. I think students get too comfortable with how they speak because the use of text messaging. They don’t use email to communicate, and when they do, they write it like a text message. It is irritating when I see this. They also say things like cool, whats up, or put smiley faces at the end of their email.

    1. Final grade? That’s terrible! I do actually have my students read this and do an assignment in which they must send me a proper email. They laugh, but I have seen a difference since I started doing this.

  3. A smiley face, well-used, can help temper a written comment that could have more than one interpretation, but please and thank you are likely to be more effective. Everyone likes to be appreciated. 🙂 This was a very good lesson for all of us, and one that I learned as a teacher when dealing with parents. It’s always best to start with something nice, especially if you have to follow it with a problem. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. I’m probably very mean – but I would love to read the e-mail you received. 🙂 I can’t believe feministtalk had a student e-mail with just “Final Grade” because that is just awful. She should have just replied with one simple letter: “F”!
    I must be in a cheeky mood today and I loved reading your post.

    1. I deleted it long ago, but it was from a pageant person, not a student. I like the idea of responding with “F.” That would be funny and satisfying, but probably not professional! Darn.

  5. I totally agree and it isn’t only the young students (although these manners are more wide spread there). I don’t mind smiley faces as long as the overall tone of the email is polite. I have had my fair share of one-liners and my reply is always overly polite, either stating that I surely got the email by mistake or pointing the obvious – you managed to send the email before completing it. Sometimes, after a stressful day, polite email including one-liner ‘please elaborate.’ does the wonder too 😉

  6. I appreciate this post! I write many emails to instructors and am glad to see I am following all the basic rules. The only one I believe I miss a lot is starting the first paragraph of the email with a, “I hope all finds you well”, etc. I have always thought that was too personal to write to an instructor but I think I’ll have to change my views. Thanks Emily!

    1. I have no doubt that you are approaching your instructors through email with perfect politeness. You are a grown up, unlike some other students I have met! 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  7. Great post! A few more tips for students. Try to get the teacher’s name right in the e-mail. Don’t e-mail the night before the first exam asking if it’s really necessary to buy the textbook for the class. Don’t ask the teacher to scan the entire textbook and post it online for you because you don’t think you should have to spend any money on it. (These are all real incidents, unfortunately).

  8. Wow! I feel old! =D
    I could be considered “youth” (I’m 21) but I do all the things you mentioned when addressing elders (in e-mails or otherwise, I still respect them). . . I guess it has to do with the youth’s carelessness nowadays, or maybe some people don’t consider e-mails as serious as letters or face-to-face conversations, though I found them equal.

    I liked this article by the way ^_^ everyone should definitely add some respect (and punctuation) to their lives!

      1. Oh well, I guess checking my blog would show you I’m not all that mature >_< but I have a special loathing place in my heart for bad manners, bad grammar, and bad punctuation! =D

  9. Agreed. It seems like people today think that courtesy and proper grammar just don’t apply in the online world. The issue just seems to get worse with each generation, but there are definitely older people who are guilty of that as well!

  10. I’ve not received an email like this before but I am really concerned about lack of manners and respect with the primary school children I work with. Children here in the UK now tend to call their friends’ parents by their Christian name rather than ‘Mr or Mrs X’ and it seems to be inviting a far too informal level of presumption on how they should behave. This unwritten rule also seems to extend to teaching assistants in school. I don’t mind being called ‘Sam’ necessarily but today I was steaming mad because one of my kids (who is actually always rude to me) turned around and said ‘What?!’ when I asked him to do something. I said calmly but firmly ‘You say ‘pardon’ if you don’t hear, please, not ‘what?’. His friend and he sniggered. I have had to tell the same pupil that when we meet we greet each other with a hello or good afternoon, that we always say goodbye to each other (and not just run off asap) and when we talk to each other we retain eye contact. He just shrugs and refuses to do this. So now I more often than not refuse to work with him and spend time on the kids who show respect and courtesy. The worrying thing is that it is starting younger and younger these days…

    1. Oh man! I have met a few kids like this too. The lack of respect for adults bothers me. My daughter sometimes calls her friends’ moms by their first names, and I am constantly correcting her. She just hears me say. It and thinks that she can too. We just have to teach them!

      1. I think that in North America it’s still the norm for kids to call parents more formally but in the UK it’s almost unheard of now for children to use anything but Christian names. I’m not sure this is a good thing!

  11. This is a very good point. I recently graduated from university, and I actually sweated a bit every time I had to e-mail a professor, because I know that ultimately, they decide how effective my e-mail is in helping me with a lesson or answering questions. A certain protocol should be followed, but (playing devil’s advocate) not many students are aware of how to communicate with their professors because they are afraid, or don’t know how familiar the professor is with technology. Most, however, are simply arrogant and subscribe to the idea that they are the professor’s bosses since they pay for school, completely ignoring the fact that the faculty are highly qualified and are probably underpaid.

  12. I have had e-mails from students trying yo get out of library fines. They e-mail themselves then forward that e-mail to me pretending it was a earlier email that I’d ignored, and say things like; since you didn’t act on my last e-mail my fines have increased. Sort it out (not those exact words but that’s basically the tone). I politely reply that I always respond to e-mail inquiries, but since they e-mailed themselves in the first instance I can’t be held responsible for their fines. Then I kindly remind them to be careful when writing out email addresses. 😉

    1. Oh my goodness! That’s ridiculous. That reminds me of a student who didn’t turn in some of his assignments, so to prove that he had, he printed out old ones, pretended to put my handwriting and corrections on it, and then got angry when I called him on it. Like I won’t recognize my own handwriting!?!? I guess some people will do anything to get out of taking responsibility for their own failures.

  13. This was a great post and so true. Unfortunately it does not stop at E-mail. I was observing a class of 7th graders and the teacher allowed me to read their essays. They were virtually unreadable. I could tell that the kids understood their assignment and addressed the topic, but they did so in this new internet or text speak. Abbreviated words, emoticons, deliberate misspellings with extra letters, and it goes on. A little piece of me died that day. Okay, maybe that is melodramatic, but I am sure you know what I mean! This behavior is dangerous because it is stunting children. How do the expect to compete in the real world if they don’t know how to spell or use proper grammar because all they did was this trendy way of writing? I think teachers need to stand up to parents who expect their children to get good grades because they did their assignment and not because of the quality of the work. It goes along with your narcissism post, parents think that their kids are “special” and they are given allowances and entitlements that stunt their children’s growth instead of helping them achieve their best. It is sad.

    1. This issue absolutely goes alone with entitlement and narcissism. Your experience is horrifying to me! I guess language is changing and always have, but I just can’t accept texting and emoticons as the future of meaningful communication.

  14. Dear Emily J,

    I hope this comment finds you well.

    Once again, your blog gives good advice for a young person like myself, although I don’t think I have ever been guilty of any of these communicative sins!

    Also, I understand the confusion regarding the so-called “entitlement” of my generation and I appreciate the respect with which you approach the subject, making sure not to make any generalizations or accusations. That said, and I hope I convey the same amount of respect for your generation when I say this, I do believe that my generation are the victims. Monkey see, monkey do. Growing up, many of us are never taught many of these rules of respect and courtesy that so many of today’s adults live by. “We” did not invent this sense of entitlement, we learned it.

    I do understand why so many adults are disgusted with my generation. In fact, I feel disgusted as well. However, I get a bit upset when people talk about us as if it is all our fault. For example, the feeling I get from the title of the book you referenced is that it scoffs at my generation for our “sense of entitlement.” In all likelihood, I am wrong and the book explores the true causes of our flaws. But I still feel that many people want to point the finger at us and tell us we are bad kids and we should know better. But really, should we know better?

    If kids are not taught respect, why should they be scrutinized when they don’t show it? They cannot learn it themselves, and our society does not value or teach respect. This is clear when you look at the celebrities (and consequently, those celebrities’ character traits) that we idolize.

    Again, I appreciate you being the exception by not acting condescending and holier-than-thou toward us young people.

    Cheers,

    Geronimo Wilson

    (How was my comment composition?) 🙂 haha

    1. Perfect composition! And good argument. Kids do learn it from their parents. That is truly the problem, and I could write another post about inept parenting styles, but I won’t. I am not perfect either. It is so easy to point out others’ faults, but the truth is we should all just focus on ourselves, right? Great comment!

  15. I hate seeing situations like these, because it’s highly annoying to find disrespectful people around your age group. I’m seventeen, and I have no intention of ever breaking formality when addressing anyone, especially someone deserving of respect or gratitude. I know you had mentioned that you realize not every young adult is like this, however it still bugs me to no end. While I do agree with Geronimo Wilson’s comment about learning a habit from parents, I also do believe it is the setting, media influences and peers that also shape how this generation addresses others. I really liked your post and I now know I can put more into an email. xD To go along with how one was raised, my parents have had rather strict guidelines on manners and how to address someone politely. The only downside I can think of is how much time it takes me to respond to anything, including this post. I do like to think over what I say, and check for errors, but it certainly is time consuming.

    1. I feel your pain. It is hard to be a person with respect and gratitude and then to feel that your generation’s reputation has been ruined by a few. I’m glad you and Geronimo aren’t like that, and I can name more wonderful young people that I know than narcissistic, entitled ones.

  16. I loved reading these tips. I will admit, I use to have issues with writing formal emails in the past. I could never decide on a good closing. The ones I’ve used in the past included “sincerely” or “regards”. These always felt good to me, and I still use them. However, they never seemed to match my colloquial style of writing. I feel my wording is much less formal, rendering my closings as something odd in relation to the body of my emails. As a result, i’ve switched more to “take care” or “best”. Idk, I’m just rambling. Thanks for these pointers!

  17. Haha!! “assaulted by an email”…I think this is one of the most entertaining articles I’ve read on your blog. Your frustration is quite amusing, and almost as interesting as your insight into all these different topics! I’ll definitely be keeping up to date. I love it.

    1. Ha ha ha! I bet you have. Do your students send ridiculous emails, too? I find that if I make it an assignment at the beginning of the semester, then they tend to follow my ruless, but an assignment like this is easy to justify in composition courses. You teach Philosophy, right? I’m impressed.

      1. Emily,
        Sorry to be late getting back to you, but WordPress failed to tell me you had responded! I did teach philosophy, yes. And what we called “Humanities,” or “Great Books” as well. I didn’t get that many emails, fortunately. But I was always running into disrespectful and even snide young people who didn’t seem to know anything about common courtesy. I don’t miss that, I must confess — though I do miss the bright young people who loved learning. Those kept me going!

        1. I so agree that the bright and eager students keep me going too. I had an awful semester in the spring because of students who just didn’t care, but this summer I have a great class. It has rejuvenated me.

  18. Oh how this brings back memories. I used to work at an office at a university in which we received a ton of entitled emails. I would have to constantly politely and professionally point out the error of their ways…the worst was when they had total disregard for our advice. That is life I guess…and probably texting is to blame! (But…I do love texting.)

    1. You point out something that I guess should have been obvious to me, but I had never thought about it before: if they disregard one’s feelings in an email, of course they’ll disregard advice. I am sorry that you know all too well what I’m referring to. Thanks for reading!

  19. Thank you for this! I’m just a college student, but I’m horribly picky about emailing my professors—I always read my messages out loud and make sure that I don’t make any silly mistakes. A lot of people don’t seem to realize that what they say (or don’t say) in an email can alter a professor’s opinion of them. I’ve never thought of including any sort of greeting; I tend to dive straight in, which is probably a bit harsh. All in all, a lovely article with some tips that I’ll definitely be remembering!

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