The Three P’s of E-mail

E-mail has become the primary written communication tool in business today, but it can cause problems if certain etiquette rules aren’t followed.

It’s not surprising to me that e-mail is consistently the most requested topic at our business etiquette seminars. E-mail has become the primary written communication tool in business today.

Because of its importance, managers want everyone in their offices to create e-mail messages that build relationships both inside the business and with clients, prospects, suppliers, and the general public. The best way to ensure that e-mails will hit the mark is to follow the Three P’s:

Public versus private. Again and again, people make the critical error of assuming that what they are writing is a private message only intended for the recipient’s eyes. Big mistake. E-mails can be forwarded or sent on to others intentionally or inadvertently with devastating consequences. The best way to ensure that your e-mail won’t contain information that boomerangs back on you is to follow the Who, What, When, and Where rule. If the email addresses those four questions, then send it. But if it delves into “Why” or your opinion or involves interpersonal issues, ask yourself if e-mail is the best method of communication.

Proofread. Mistakes in spelling, grammar, or word choice can reflect badly on you and leave the recipient wondering if you are careless. Spelling a word incorrectly is certainly a mistake, but if you spell a person’s name incorrectly, he or she will notice and won’t be pleased or easily forgiving. With the advent of auto-correct, spelling errors can go unnoticed. is full of humorous examples of mangled messages. Auto-fill can be helpful, but it also can be devastating. You start addressing an e-mail in which you were critical about your boss to Peter, your friend, but auto-fill nicely completes the address with Peter, your boss, and you don’t notice the error. Big trouble when your boss gets the e-mail meant for your friend, Peter.

Patience. It’s easy to hit the send button automatically when you complete your message, especially when you are in a hurry. Unfortunately, it is also unforgiving because once a message is sent, getting it back unread is impossible. (Yes, some programs have a retrieve button, but there’s no guarantee the message hasn’t already been opened by the time you try to retrieve it.)

Here are two pieces of advice that apply patience to your e-mails:

  • Before you send an e-mail, print it out and take it to a private space. Shut the door and then read it out loud. You’ll hear the tone in your writing. If you read it silently, you won’t hear the tone as well, so read it out loud.
  • Ask a colleague to read your message and then listen to his or her critique. What you thought was a harmless attempt at humor or intended as a neutral tone may be completely misunderstood. Because written messages do not have the added advantages of voice inflection or facial expression, they consistently are perceived as more negative in tone than intended.

Peter Post is a director of The Emily Post Institute (, great-grandson of Emily Post, and co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business.”