Why your emails turn people off

An email is not a text

You're familiar with the image of the elderly man on his front lawn, shaking his fist at the teenagers zooming past in a red sports car. They laugh at his disdain and toss beer cans out the windows. "Damn hooligans!" he shouts, before lumbering back into his house and muttering under his breath, "Kids these days."

I identify with this often misunderstood fellow when it comes to email etiquette. More and more, I receive emails that come off as downright rude. They have subject lines like "Quick question" and start with, "Hey, will you ..."

Are you making email mistakes that could cost you business relationships? Let's look at how to improve one-to-one emails.

For email marketing-specific correspondence, you might read these pieces:

We're writing shorter and shorter emails these days, making brevity the name of the game. Yet are you committing email mistakes that could cost you business relationships? Let's look at how to improve one-to-one emails.


Having clients around the world means becoming familiar with their time zones and each country's typical working hours. In the United States, we talk about working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., though we increasingly see folks starting early and finishing up late at night, at home. However, it's the courteous assumption that a person will be in the office Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. I don't expect my clients to reply outside of these hours.

Are you emailing at 7 p.m. on a Friday and expecting a Monday reply? Did you send a list of questions Saturday afternoon and ask for responses by first-thing Monday? Have you given three options for a meeting over the phone, all of which are overnight in their time zone?

Be mindful of others' working (and outside-of-work) lives when you have a request to make of them. We all deserve uninterrupted nights with family, weekends with friends and vacations. If you have a lightbulb moment at an inopportune time and can't wait to send the email, make it known in your message that you don't need an immediate reply.

Subject line

A subject line's goal is to tell the recipient, in summary, what the email is about. It helps her prioritize her inbox and plan her day. A Monday email's subject line "Weekend plans" may be put off until Wednesday for a response, but you can bet "Deadline change for this week's project" will be read straightaway.

Subject lines like "Question for you" or "One last thing" are -- let's just say it -- thoughtless. Help your recipient out by briefly conveying what your email is truly about. Some awesome email subject lines I've received lately include:

  • Payment and authorship question: This email confirmed an invoice's payment and began a conversation about a content piece's authorship; the subject line perfectly gave a preview of the content. P.S. Including "payment" or "invoice" in a subject line is a great way to get a quicker open. Everyone's all about those dollar bills.
  • Followup about Avis's party: This email shared the latest news about a party we're planning, including who's attending and what's needed from each guest.
  • The "Level Up" blog post is live: This email let me know a piece I contributed to is live and ready to be shared.


I had a college professor who told us on the first day he wouldn't read emails that called him by his first name.

"I'm Dear Dr. Bush," he said. "Not Hi Hal."

Now, I do use Hi in my salutations, but the importance here is having an introduction at all instead of launching straight into your message. Think of a phone call: If someone answers your call, you say hello to them, right? It's courteous.

And limit the use of Hey to only your closest friends, please. Tweet this.

Email body

When we go about in life, we ask ourselves, "What's the kind thing to do here?" Rarely is the answer "Make it all about me," right? So why do we throw our email recipients right into what we need from them?

Rather than: "Hey Tiana, will you take a look at my website's ABC page? The content needs punching up."

Try: "Hi Tiana! I hope you had a great weekend. We had rain again, but then, that's Seattle for you -- and I secretly love the excuse to stay in and read. I'm writing because I noticed my website's ABC page needs some punching up, and I wonder if you have time in your schedule this week to take a look. I'm sure you've already scoped out your projects for the week, so I'm up for a quick chat about this page to see if it might fit in. Does Tuesday at 11 a.m. your time work for you? If not, definitely feel free to email me instead, and we can talk through it over email. Thanks so much, Tiana!"

It's a longer email, yes, but it's kinder. Kindness is valued over brevity any day of the week. We're trying to make everything so brief that we're making our conversations unfriendly, says Deborah Thomas-Nininger, a provider of soft skills training programs. Don't try to save your email recipient time; instead, create a sunny spot for her day.

And yet: Don't drone on forever.


You wouldn't hang up the phone without saying goodbye, so why end your email abruptly? Figure out the signoff that works for you -- Sincerely, Warmly, Regards, Thanks so much, Until next time -- and use it every time. (If you're a coder, think of the salutation as the opening tag and the signoff as the closing tag.)

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