Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Email Etiquette

Published on 02 October 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

How long can you leave an email unanswered without causing offence to the sender? Should you block your official email at the end of the working week, or like German car manufacturer Daimler, for the whole of your summer vacation? How far can you expect your emails to remain private? These and several other questions were the topic for discussion in last Friday’s Diplo webinar on e-politeness hosted by Director Jovan Kurbalija (summary due soon).  

The challenges of managing an overflowing email in-box are common to everyone these days but the discussion set me to thinking about some of the particular questions for diplomats.   Are emails official diplomatic correspondence? How formal or informal should they be? What about answering public enquiries?

Many diplomats nowadays conduct all their correspondence by email. Yet email looks flimsy to those bred to diplomatic protocol of the highest order, as anyone can attest who has ever had to draft a Third Person Note Verbale (time to abolish these?) or draw up a seating plan for a Royal banquet.  I was told quite firmly not long ago by one diplomat, a lawyer as it happened, that diplomatic drafting training needn’t cover emails since they couldn’t be classed as official diplomatic documents. 

For some people, a message sent by email is either ephemeral or trivial, somehow not to be taken as seriously as a note typed on starchy crested paper and hand-delivered by a diplomatic driver.  This might explain why the care taken in writing official letters or notes seems to disappear when the Compose page opens on the screen. The finger twitches over the send button and presses down without checking over the content, subject line or copy addressees. The ream of previous emails with attachments may be left intact, either deliberately, to save the writer the trouble of summing up what’s been said before, or unintentionally, due to inattentiveness. The first is irritating, the second can be embarrassing. We all know such stories though   UK Foreign Office preparation for the Papal Visit a few years ago is hard to beat as an example of what not to do. 

Even emails between two individuals can still be official documents of record so the temptation to start with Hi or sign off LOL or XXX is generally to be resisted, however well you might know them.  But that doesn’t mean that the wooden, bulky language beloved of so many foreign ministries should take over. For a profession whose primary task is to communicate, diplomatic language can be spectacularly obscure.  A direct, informal style is always easier to follow, and quicker to produce. 

Many diplomats I know complain that their official email has grown to near-unmanageable proportions.   E-life is just too busy to reply to everything. So public enquiries are pushed to the back of the queue or the bin.  Some ministries set guidelines with specific targets for response, from 48 hours to 10 days; others consider this a chore too far and just don’t bother.  But diplomats are in the business of informing and influencing.  If someone goes to the trouble of sending an email with a question or comment, they deserve the right to a reply, however brief. Yes, this is a burden, but diplomats are public servants and there are plenty of tools nowadays to make the process simpler and quicker, like FAQs or template answers.  Or just delegate the task to a junior member of staff, horrifying though this concept may be to some foreign ministries.

Here are my ten tips for creating effective emails. 

  1. Write a meaningful subject line.
  2. Identify yourself clearly.
  3. Keep the message focussed and to the point.
  4. Avoid attachments unless essential, and if so, explain what they are.
  5. Don’t assume privacy.  You can’t control what your reader will do with your email. 
  6. Distinguish between formal and informal situations.
  7. Respond promptly to incoming messages, at least an interim acknowledgement.
  8. Show respect and restraint.
  9. Don’t overreact.
  10. Proofread. 

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