Oh, you email warriors… I see you brag about your 200+ emails and get uber jealous when you dwindle it down to zero. I don’t know how you do it, for I am a digital hoarder and my inbox is plentiful with unfinished tasks. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while because since the whole world revolves around email, I’ve seen some silly things people do on it so this serves as a refresher for those of us that work in government, 401(c)(3)s, or have a private practice.
Your Emails Do Not Belong To You, So Play Nice
If you work in government or a non-profit, your emails do not belong to you. Anything and everything can be read by your IT department, is subject to a subpoena, and should be treated like they will be read aloud in court, your licensing board, human resources, etc… Disparaging your client or coworkers seem like fun? Yeah, don’t do it. And especially don’t do it over email. And don’t send it to the subject of your disparagement (swear to Gawd this happened to me).
Email is Not Secure
Speaking of not belonging to you, email is not a secure venue. Systems get hacked. Hillary got hacked. Bernie would’ve gotten hacked, too. While having a strong passcode or passphrase is strongly encouraged, it’s a bad idea to put client information in email that can easily identify your client. If you are able to turn on 2-Factor Authentication, you should do it.
2-Factor Authentication (sometimes written on 2FA) is a setting you turn on (not all services offer this) where you not only have to get your password right, you also have to put in a code that is sent to a second venue, whether its via text message or an app like Google Authenticator. Setting this up will also generate “Recovery Keys”, which you need to print out and put in a safe place in case you ever lose 1 of your 2 venues (remember, you need BOTH to get in). iMessage, WhatsApp, and Facebook messenger have very good encryption standards (i.e. the Feds would have a very hard time busting in without your password), but still, default to your agency’s IT policy.
If you have encryption, do that first!
The IT department at our work has turned on email encryption so that we can email important client information to each other on a whim. It’s super easy to simply click the down “Low Importance” arrow on my email program, which automatically tells it to “encrypt this email”. It’s also super easy to forget. If you are able to encrypt emails, always remember to do this FIRST before putting together your email.
Stick with the Default Font
Nobody wants to read your email in papyrus font. Or that fake-cursive font. Or Comic Sans [the hate is still very strong on that one]. Or any other font that is not the default font for your email program. Stick with Times New Roman, Calibri, or Helvetica.
Hey Ignacio, Here is important social work information that is negated by a silly font. Your Colleague, Joey Joe Joe Junior Shabadoo
The worst font ever with the worst name I’ve ever heard.
Start with a Greeting
In graduate school, I had this very awesome professor who made it a big deal that you start your email with a greeting. It’s good ettiquette to say your recipient’s name first, followed by a greeting. Then you ask for what you want. For example:
Dear Dr. Martinez, I hope you’re having a good day. [gimme, gimme, gimme]. [I need, I need, I need]. [now, now, now].
See how that looks better than:
Dear Dr. Martinez, [gimme, gimme, gimme]. [I need, I need, I need]. [now, now, now]. The second one sort of looks rude, doesn’t it?
If it takes more than 3 sentences…
Brevity is the soul of wit and too much text is overwhelming. I subscribe to the metaphor where brain power is a diminishing resource, like a battery. I’m not gonna waste mine or that of my colleague… Especially when I want something, I am compelled to get to the point right away. I just noticed this paragraph was hella long and this is sentence # 4 in it. For Example:
Dear Dr. Martinez, I hope you’re having a good day.  Our mutual client (male, on lexipro, you saw him 2 days ago) called me saying that he’s havingincreasedsuicidal thoughts, which haven’t been there in the past 3 months he’s been under our care.  I am also going to call your cell phone to tell you this and give you his contact information, but client and I need to know what to do next (i.e. does he discontinue, do I schedule a follow-up with you, etc.)  I am going to go to his house to assess him. Be brief and to the point.
Learn to Use the Highlighter (or other formatting)
Sometimes, we need to use more than 3 sentences to get our point across or to give the information we’re giving an appropriate context. With psychiatry staff I have worked with, I will highlight the most important thing that needs to be addressed and hope that this empowers my reader to do what I need them to do without 3 more emails to get what I need.
In iOS, I use the underline tool:
In Outlook, I use the highlighter
Dear Dr. Martinez, I hope you’re having a good day. Our mutual client (male, on lexipro, you saw him 2 days ago) called me saying that he’s having increased suicidal thoughts, which haven’t been there in the past 3 months he’s been under our care. I am also going to call your cell phone to tell you this and give you his contact information, but client and I need to know what to do next (i.e. does he discontinue, do I schedule a follow-up with you, etc.) I am going to go to his house to assess him.
Super easy to do.
Be Directional (or Clearly State Your Intent)
State your intent, clearly: Why are you sending this email?
- Do you need direction?
- Are you giving an FYI?
- Are you giving direction?
- Why is(/are) your recipient(s) reading your email?
In the previous example, I said something that was buried, but brought to the forefront by the highlighter. I told the psychiatrist, “hey, this is going on” but “I need to know what to do next”, which was highlighted/underlined.
End with a Thank You
Whenever I email someone, it’s usually because I need something like more information, clarification, or a task to be completed. In spite of that other person’s professional obligations (i.e. they have to do it, whether they like it or not), it’s important for me to acknowledge their time and energy spent on the correspondence I sent.
Dear Dr. Martinez, I hope you’re having a good day. Our mutual client (male, on lexipro, you saw him 2 days ago) called me saying that he’s having increased suicidal thought, which haven’t been there in the past 3 months he’s been under our care. I am also going to call your cell phone to tell you this and give you his contact information, but client and I need to know what to do next (i.e. does he discontinue, do I schedule a follow-up with you, etc.) I am going to go to his house to assess him. Thank you for your time.
Everyone’s time is important and this may sow seeds of good will so hopefully the responding party might be inclined to help you out quickly.
You Need a Signature
A signature is important for an email to tell people your name, title, position, and how to contact you. A fun fact: your degrees also show the financial scars of overwhelming and crippling student loan debts. For example:
Ignacio Pacheco, LCSW Psychiatric Social Worker mobile: (831) 275-0805
Sometimes emails need to be written from our phones because we’re not at our office. I do one of those annoying disclaimers at the bottom that basically translates to “yo dawg… I wrote this email using my fat fingers on my touch keyboard and it might be short, but I don’t mean to sound short, but also, there are typos and I might misspell a few things, but you’re gonna have to let that slide, please”.
Sent from my iPhone (please pardon short messages and any grammatical or spelling errors)
The most aggravating of the “Sent from my [mobile device]” messages I’ve ever seen was “Sent from my [mobile device] because I care”. Choose wisely.
Avoid Writing Angry (or Angry-Sounding) Emails
Speaking of sounding short… being passionate and articulate sometimes doesn’t translate well on email, however, be wary of crossing the boundary of condescension or contempt.
“Per my last e-mail” is office speak for “bitch can you read”
— Cookie? (@OhEmmeG) December 21, 2017
I’m all for being passionate and advocating for clients, ethical points of view, and doing the right thing. But gosh darn it, sometimes you need to read your email and ask yourself a few questions:
- If this came from my boss or director, how would this sound or make me feel?
- Is it respectful?
- Am I staying in my lane?
- Does it have too much fluff?
- Can it wait? (sometimes things resolve by themselves).
- Do I articulate what I want
While I like using an occasional charm ( 🙂 ) to lighten the tone, I’m not advocating for peppering your message with smileys and emojis, either. Email is a venue of communication in which your professionalism shows.
What Else Shows Good Email Ettiquette?
I must’ve missed something… I want to hear from you!