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A guide to email etiquette

Is there a correct way to start an e-mail? Is your digital correspondence riddled with faux pas? Guy Adams takes a lesson in modern manners from Debrett's, the masters of polite society

When John Debrett founded his eponymous toffs' "Bible" in 1769, he didn't have to contend with such modern delights as the e-mail, text message and video-conference. Yet if the legendary expert in Georgian manners had been born 250 years later, you get the feeling that he'd have used digital technology in the nicest possible fashion.

With this in mind, the publisher of Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage has dragged itself kicking and screaming into the 21st century, with its first ever fully comprehensive guide to modern office etiquette.

The latest edition of the firm's traditional guide to manners, Correct Form, contains an entire chapter on the subtleties of what might be described as "techno-politeness".

For longstanding Debrett's readers, who might normally use the book for advice on addressing the wife of a son of a baron, it is likely to be quite an eye-opener.

In addition to tables helping them speak the Queen's English (Salisbury should be pronounced "Sawls-bri", by the way) they will find chapters headed Teleconferencing and Mobile Phones.

Next to a chapter on how to address a King or Queen ("Your Royal Highness" for the first time and subsequently "Sir" or "Ma'am" as appropriate) lies a beginners' guide to text-messaging: "A quick and efficient method of communication, usually sent from one mobile phone to another."

The advice offered by Debrett's covers everything from the mundane to the potentially explosive. Readers are warned, for example, that: "Text messages cannot be secured, or the distribution limited. They can be stored indefinitely and propagated at whim." They are also sternly cautioned that: "It is unacceptable to read a text message sent to another person's mobile phone. It is equally unacceptable to send a text from another person's mobile phone."

Yet many of Correct Form's new chapters aim to offer common-sense advice to help committed Luddites come to terms with the onward march of Progress. "Teleconferencing is constrained by the lack of facial expressions and body language," reads one such entry. "It is therefore important to speak distinctly and keep the tone of voice modulated."

Although the revelation that Debrett's has embraced digital technology is likely to set moustaches twitching among traditional readers, the firm is adamant that it must move with the times.

"With all matters of etiquette, things change," says the company's chairman, Conrad Free. "Some of this technology hasn't been around for a long time, but it is still right that people use it in the correct manner. People still listen to Debrett's. Many people in the UK use Correct Form as a reference book on a regular basis, and as the voice of authority on how to behave, we have to evolve."

In general, the modern gent is advised to reply to an invitation or message in the medium in which it was originally sent, and if in doubt to err on the side of formality when communicating via new technology.

E-mail etiquette is an art in itself, yet the most socially intrusive, and therefore potentially dangerous, modern gadget is, unsurprisingly, the ubiquitous mobile telephone. "We've all sat there on a train or in a restaurant with people bellowing into a mobile phone, and it can be very annoying," says the book's editor, Jo Aitchison. "Equally, with ring tones, putting a phone on silent or vibrate is generally the way forward. If you really want a novelty ring tone, then I suppose you can have one, but for goodness sake answer it quickly, and we would advise having an alternative 'ring ring' one for work."

As a general rule of thumb, though, it's all about having consideration for others. In both "E-tiquette" and etiquette, she adds: "The number-one rule is to treat others as you would like to be treated."

Correct Form is published by Debrett's, priced £17.99

Think Before You Use The 'BCC' Field

"Blind carbon copy", or "bcc", should seldom be used; it is deceptive to the primary recipient. Instead, the e-mail should be forwarded on to the third party, with a short note explaining any confidentiality, after its distribution. If blind copying is essential - for example, for a confidential document where all recipients must remain anonymous - senders should address the e-mail to themselves, and list all recipients as "bcc" recipients. The recipients will be aware that the full distribution list has been hidden from them.

Avoid Writing A Pointless Subject Field

The subject line is a summary of the content of the e-mail, and should alert the recipient. A well-written subject line will ensure that the e-mail gets the appropriate attention. It is also used for filing and retrieval purposes, so it is important that it accurately reflects the topic of the e-mail.

Should You Send A Letter Instead?

Written correspondence must never be replied to solely by e-mail. If an urgent response is necessary, then a telephone call or an e-mail is acceptable, but only provided it is followed up with the appropriate written correspondence.

Use Proper Punctuation

Ensure that correct punctuation is used, and do not succumb to the habit of using lower case letters throughout.

Don't Waste People's Time

As with letters, it is polite to reply to e-mails promptly. A few words suffice as a holding reply (and reassure the sender that the e-mail has been received) until a longer reply can be composed.

Include Your Contact Details

It is common to have a choice of several professional and informal signatures. Business e-mail signatures should supply relevant information, such as job title, company website address, telephone and e-mail address.

Salutation And Sign-Off

Suggested informal salutation: name only (ie, "Jon"). Informal sign-off: "See you soon". Formal salutation: "Dear Mr Davenport". Informal salutation: "Kind regards". Err towards the formal.

Refrain From Sarcasm

Unlike an interactive telephonic or face-to-face conversation, it is impossible to judge how the recipient will interpret any comments in an e-mail. The writing should therefore be kept brief, simple and to the point. Any sarcasm or subtle humour must be tempered, especially in messages sent between those who are less well-acquainted.