Imagine showing up to a meeting with clients in the clothes you wore this weekend. Your handouts are disorganized as you toss them onto the center of the table. You have spinach in your teeth from lunch and you respond to your supervisor’s amusing ice-breaker with, “OMG! That made me LOL!” You would probably never consider behaving this way. It would be considered a career-limiting move at best.
Your email correspondences are just as important to your professional image as your face-to-face interactions. Often, it may be the only interaction you have with colleagues in other locations.
If English is not your first language, you may make minor mistakes that you’re not even aware of. American culture may be more casual than others, but there are certain standards you should follow. The way you present yourself in writing determines whether you appear knowledgeable and worth listening to.
The following tips will help you write professional emails in English that represent you well.
1. Check your spelling and grammar before your hit send
The number one way to lose credibility is to have spelling and grammar mistakes in your writing. Today, there is no excuse with a spell checker on your computer. Write your message in Word first and run spell check to correct all spelling and grammar errors. This is especially important if your native language doesn’t use articles (“a” and “the”) or plural word endings. Make sure your sentences have verb-tense agreement and your punctuation is correct. Be noticed for your ideas, not your grammar mistakes.
2. Write in short, clear sentences
Americans value getting to the point quickly. Select a subject heading that clearly states the purpose of your email. Stick to the point in the body of your email and keep your sentences concise. Keep paragraphs 3-4 lines long.
If you have multiple points to cover, state that up front. “I have three suggestions on how we can be more efficient in our meetings.” Follow this statement with numbered items detailing each point. This makes your email quick and easy to read, which your reader will appreciate. Also, keep your sentences simple to help avoid the mistakes mentioned in tip 1.
3. Have a clear call to action
Because Americans tend to be direct, they respond well to direct requests. Don’t expect readers to guess, or infer, the next step. Let them know exactly what you need. If you want someone to reply to you quickly, ask them to “Please respond by the end of the day tomorrow.” Be courteous but specific in your requests: “I would like to meet with you about this in person. Please let me know your availability next Monday or Tuesday.”
4. Avoid using idioms, slang and emoticons
Unless you are very comfortable with English, avoid the use of idioms and slang in your written correspondence. You may not use the phrase in the right context, which may confuse your reader or sound too informal. It’s always best to write in a clear, straightforward style to make a good impression.
Emoticons may also send a confusing message. I knew of a programming team in the Philippines that was contracted to collaborate with an American software company. The Filipino team felt uncomfortable pointing out errors in the American team’s code. They would add smiley face emoticons when they directly addressed the errors in email, intending to show goodwill and respect. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect and made it appear to the Americans that they were gloating over the mistakes. It’s best to leave emoticons out of your professional emails.
5. Watch your tone
It’s easy to misinterpret a person’s intent in writing. This is especially true if cultural differences are involved. Avoid trying to be funny in email. Humor rarely reads the way we intend, and there have been many instances of well-intentioned jokes falling flat or offending in email. Save the humor for when people can hear your tone of voice and see your body language. Smiley-face emoticons don’t help interpret a joke as much as you think.
In addition to your sentences being concise, they should also be courteous. Americans may be direct, but they appreciate politeness. Unless you have a mutually casual relationship with a colleague, address them with “Hi Susan,” instead of “Hey Susan.” Show appreciation with a quick thank you, “Thanks for responding to me so quickly.” Add the word “please” to your requests. Avoid openly criticizing a colleague, especially if you’re cc’ing several people. For instance, don’t say “This is the third time you asked me for the launch documents. I feel like I’m repeating myself.” Instead, attach a previous email you sent and say “The launch documents are attached.”
Set yourself apart
It may be true that you see others at work being less formal or direct in their email. Even so, you’ll never be criticized for being eloquent, concise and respectful. Avoid potential misinterpretations caused by language errors. Your professionalism will shine and make you stand out above your competition.