Where Has Email Etiquette Gone?

October 31, 2021 Updated: November 1, 2021


It is common knowledge that the email facility is both a wonderful invention and a disturbing nuisance. It offers a convenient way to communicate with people around the world effortlessly, but it can also serve as a tool to harass and humiliate the recipients of a message.

Christine Crandell, reporting on a 2015 Adobe Systems study, discloses that, on average, people spend 6.3 hours each day going through and responding to email messages.

She admits that the checking of email, which she describes as “the most convenient form of social escapism,” is an addiction that takes up a significant amount of people’s time.

It has become a burgeoning industry, the history of which only started in 1971.

The origins of email are controversial, with Ray Tomlinson, a computer engineer, claiming that he invented email in 1971. However, V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai contradicted this claim by insisting that he created email as a teen genius in the late 1970s.

Be that as it may, I heard of email the very first time in the late 1980s when a colleague took me to the international airport of Sydney on my way to Europe.

The colleague, who had recently returned from an American sabbatical, told me that “when American academics come to their office in the morning, they switch on their computer, and they would see all the messages which have been sent to them during the night.” The term “email” was not used widely at that time.

A woman looks at her email on a computer
A woman looks at her email on a computer screen in Washington on Nov. 23, 2010. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Considering that email has been around for a long time, it is amazing that even educated people cannot always use this facility in a civilised manner.

Indeed, it is sad to see that the Law Society of New South Wales should have to publish “10 rules for email etiquette.”

The society recommends that to avoid an office e-war, it is necessary to:

  1. Use a clear, professional subject line
  2. Proofread every email you send
  3. Write your email before entering the recipient’s email address
  4. Double check you have the correct recipient
  5. Ensure you CC all relevant recipients
  6. You don’t always have to “reply all”
  7. Reply to your emails
  8. Include a signature block
  9. Use the appropriate level of formality
  10. Keep emails brief and to the point

Similarly, Inc. has published 15 email rules of etiquette, which in addition to those listed by the Law Society implore email users to leave humour out of their messages, to be aware of cultural differences, and the lack of confidentiality.

Nevertheless, even a cursory investigation into email etiquette reveals that email messages are often full of spelling errors, rules of punctuation are routinely disregarded, and the pursuit of professionalism in writing is noticeably lacking.

In this context, there are many email abuses that one could deplore; including the habit of failing to proofread messages, the annoying occurrence of using inappropriate abbreviations, for example “R U OK,” the spectacular deterioration in the art of writing letters, the inability or unwillingness of users to reply to all emails because it is “inconvenient” to reply to unwanted requests, and the abominable use of emails for purposes other than communication, for example, to humiliate or harm the intended recipients.

The ninth Law Society recommendation—to use the appropriate level of formality—merits further elaboration because it is reflective of society’s level of civility.

Perceptive email users would have noticed that many email correspondents simply do not use a salutation anymore when drafting an email, and often they do no longer end their email message with an appropriate phrase, for example, “Kind regards,” and therefore would not start with “Dear,.”

Instead, they would merely contain an abrupt message, appropriately described as a blunt missile.

Some email users use the ubiquitous “Hi” which epitomises a willingness to connect with the recipient, but an unwillingness to be intimate.

There are those who use the unimaginative “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon” salutation but are afraid to communicate any sense of closeness.

laptop computer virus hacker online uk
A person using a laptop on Aug. 6, 2013. (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

I often noticed that the absence of a salutation and an appropriate ending is not just a habit of many non-educated people, but also of people with advanced levels of education, and even friends or business acquaintances.

This is a truly disconcerting development for two reasons.

First, the absence of a salutation might indicate that the recipient is not worthy of a formal address. If so, the sender demonstrates a lack of respect.

Respect for other people is necessary to promote tolerance and to nurture their interest in valuing diversity.

Second, the absence of a salutation could indicate that the sender has no time for niceties and does not want to waste their time on the recipient. However, it is certainly indicative of the crassness promoted by society’s email culture.

Thus, an appropriate level of formality is a measurable standard, which enables people to evaluate the health of civilised society.

It may also be a measure of civility if a recipient of an abusive or aggressive email were to reply, in a polite manner, with a return email that contains a salutation and an ending.

Such an approach is sure to disarm the sender of the aggressive message and defuses potentially dangerous situations, which otherwise might occur.

It may well be that disregard for the Law Society’s ninth rule demonstrates the absence of emotional intelligence.

Psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer have described “emotional intelligence” as the “ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”

They point out that, “The emotionally intelligent person … attends to emotion in the path toward growth. Emotional intelligence involves self-regulation appreciative of the fact that temporarily hurt feelings or emotional restraint is often necessary in the service of a greater objective.”

Of course, the email facility is here to stay. It can contribute to the maintenance of a stable, civil society and it facilitates communication among people.

The future will reveal whether this sentiment represents the expression of an expectation or a confident assertion of the present value of email.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (Boolarong Press, 2020) and “The Coincidence” (Connor Court Publishing, 2021).