Have you ever received an email and thought, “Wow, that was rude” or “Did they not proofread”? The art of the email is tricky for native speakers, so when writing in a second language, even the savviest emailer can become befuddled. There are certainly tips that, across the board, can be helpful for any emailer to note. Following a few simple guidelines will help make your emails clearer and possibly, more polite. Follow these tips for email etiquette for English language learners and native speakers.
First, do not send an email when you are angry. Similarly, do not send an important email when you are racing out the door. These two things are never a good idea. You need time to cool down or, in the case of the latter, time to concentrate on the message. Second, try not to use an abundance of exclamation marks or capital letters. IT COULD LOOK LIKE YOU ARE SHOUTING!! Third, be polite. Use etiquette such as please, thank-you and other niceties. Fourth, write a greeting, as you would in a friendly letter. If you do not know the recipient well, or if it is the first time you have written, identify yourself. When finished, write a closing and type your name. Finally, check spelling and grammar. Proofreading really does go a long way. These are basic tips for any emailer. What, though, could we add to this list to help non-native speakers compose the perfect email?
When getting started, it is important to think of your audience. Are you addressing a colleague or your supervisor? Just like handwritten letters are categorized as friendly and business, emails should be as well. Remember to identify yourself if it is an initial email with the recipient.
Next, think of your purpose. Are you writing to inform someone of something at work? Are you requesting an early check-in at a hotel? Be specific with information. Avoid the use of words that you are not absolutely sure of the meaning. Using “fancy” words is not necessary. Sometimes “less is more.” Similarly, do not write long sentences or feel like you have to keep explaining or repeating yourself. Say what you mean, politely, and get your point across quickly. Long emails are rarely read carefully.
Reread my first paragraph. Do you see one or two words that could have been written with an alternative? (savvier, befuddled) You can always use a thesaurus to choose synonyms, but go with words that get to the point and are clear to you.
Do not use phrasal verbs or idiomatic expressions in your second language if you are not certain you are using them correctly. Take another look at my first paragraph. Do you see any phrases that could be deleted or written more literally (across the board, racing out the door, go a long way)? Native speakers will use figurative language naturally in speech and written expression, but it can be very confusing to the non-native reader. Likewise, if you try to use figurative language in your second language, but are not sure of the translation, your reader may find your email unclear. You should also avoid jokes unless your email is to someone with whom you are quite familiar. Do not use sarcasm or jokes in professional emails. They can be misread easily, especially in written form.
Lastly, when writing your emails in a second or subsequent language, think about your tone. Truly, this is important in ALL languages as it is hard to tell the writer’s tone through words on a screen. Oftentimes, it is better to pick up the phone to have a chat, but if an email makes you feel more comfortable, just make sure you follow the above tips about being polite and not using exclamatory sentences throughout. Remember that the reader cannot see your facial expressions or body language to “read” you. The reader will have to infer if you are serious, showing compassion, joking, or outright furious.
Have a look at this quick example email. What do you think might be lost in translation?
Did you find some words or phrases confusing? Although the email is formatted correctly and there are no errors in grammar, spelling, etc., there are some tricky phrases. A native reader of English would have no trouble with this email, but non-native readers might struggle with “the spread,” “book a table,” “we’re all set,” and perhaps others. As stated above, “less is more.” This simply means you can use clearer/more literal words and phrases to make this email easily understood.
Take a minute to rewrite the above email in your own words. Feel free comment with your version below. And remember, email etiquette is important! Follow the above tips for a better emailing experience.
Practice your skills with our English Review of Conditionals lesson.