Why you should always be extra polite in your emails
Sometimes an email is just an email. Other times, it’s an X ray of
Recently, a friend emailed me. He asked if I would forward the résumé of a
friend of his to my clients that have intern programs. I reached out to
Both people I emailed replied within a few hours (after all, they work at
PR agencies). Yet while they basically said the same thing (“You’re too
late”) the tones they used were strikingly divergent.
Here’s what they wrote:
1. “We are full up for this summer (we started reviewing in January as most
do) but fall is a possibility. If that works, please apply through website.
2. “Hey Jonathan, thank you for referring [redacted name]. We do have a
good intern program. [Redacted], Looks like you’ve been having a good run
at [Redacted], congratulations. We have offers out now and should know
pretty quickly if we’ll have an opening. If so, I’d be interested in
talking with you. Thanks for your interest in [Redacted].”
Think about these two messages the
next time you respond to an email. Do you bother with a greeting, or do you eschew pleasantries? Are you curt, or are you friendly? Do you express impatience, or do you express
gratitude? Do you take a minute to peek at the document in question, or do
you ignore it?
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Fast forward 10 years, as a thought experiment. That potential intern is
now a vice president at a Fortune 500 company and is looking to hire a PR
agency. Which one do you think he or she will contact?
The situation isn’t entirely hypothetical. I still remember when I first
came to Washington 15 years ago. In my job search, a friend introduced me
to a friend at a big lobbying firm. I followed-up, but I never heard back.
A few years later, a colleague asked if I knew a lobbyist with connections
to the House education committee. Do you think I recommended the guy who
had ignored me?
To be sure, how someone emails is not necessarily indicative of their full
temperament. I have longtime friends who based on their emails alone you’d
think would be jerks, yet in person are generous, thoughtful and kind.
On the other hand, getting to know someone in person isn’t always a
practical option. Many PR pros have longtime clients they’ve never met,
only corresponding via email, calls, texts, Slack and Asana.
Whether this is a good thing or bad can be debated, but the reality is that
we live in an electronic world. You are what you email.
The savviest emailers accept this truth: they recognize that email
inherently lacks any kind of tone. For example, when face to face with someone, you can cross your arms,
furrow your brow, mutter under your breath or raise your voice. With email,
you have only your written words, so it behooves you to add padding or
filler that bares your attitude.
As Frank Luntz puts it, “It’s not what you say. It’s what people hear,” and
what I heard in that first reply was, “Bug off.”
A little more time now to
write a proper reply
could be worth years of connections later. Is your reputation really not
worth an extra 60 seconds?
Jonathan Rick runs the
Jonathan Rick Group, a digital-marketing firm that helps people shape and tell their
story. Test his email etiquette at email@example.com.