Nutshell: Etiquette rules for digital communication

Written by
Future Talent Learning

07 Dec 2020

07 Dec 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

The most effective communication takes place face to face, but when we’re using email and other digital collaboration tools, we can reduce misunderstandings by following some simple rules.

How would you respond to the following messages?

“We need to talk first thing tomorrow.” (Teams message from your boss at the end of the day)

“I need that done ASAP!” (WhatsApp from a junior colleague)

“Cheers m’dear!!! 😉 x” (Email from an external contact you’ve never interacted with before)

Chances are the first might give you a sleepless night, the second would make your blood boil and the third cause you to raise an eyebrow and question the age and status of the person you’re dealing with.

As human beings, communication affects us emotionally and when it’s not taking place face to face, we lack the cues that tone of voice and body language bring. This makes it all too easy to use an inappropriate channel, miscommunicate messages, hit the wrong note, cause offence, or show ourselves up as less than professional. All of these can damage team dynamics, relationships, projects and careers.

It’s still best to meet face to face or catch up via a phone call when attempting comprehensive or nuanced communication, but this isn’t always possible. When we’re using digital methods – from email to synchronous communication tools such as Teams and Slack – we need to know how to use them in the right ways.

Here are some tips on getting the best out of digital communication in the workplace:

Choose the right method of communication

Our choice of channel for an interaction depends on the formality, seriousness, urgency and complexity of the message we need to convey. For example, it would be highly inappropriate to text a colleague a formal warning about their conduct; inadvisable to email a supplier when we need an immediate response, and inefficient to send a long project outline to a client via Yammer. It’s generally accepted that:

  • Email is best for in-depth communication that’s not particularly time sensitive and requires a level of detail and professional courtesy. It’s an asynchronous tool, based on a letter-writing format, so it’s good for formality but not the most reliable medium if you’re looking for a speedy reply. It’s also suitable for group messages, including attachments and creating a record of communication, which we can refer to and archive.
  • Text messages are best for short, non-controversial messages (generally between people who have an existing relationship) that are urgent or time sensitive and require only a simple response. There’s a character limit on SMS messages – and besides, lengthy missives are annoying to type or scroll through on a phone. However, if we’ve missed our train and we’re going to be late for a meeting, texting comes into its own as most people can be reached this way at any time.
  • Instant messages are best for immediate interactions with colleagues, where we need to collaborate in real time. They prompt the recipient with notifications and we can generally see whether a person is online, when they’ve read the message and when they are typing their response. Messenger apps mimic conversation more closely than texts or email and suit relatively brief, less formal communication. They suggest urgency, so shouldn’t really be used out of hours. However, if we need to ask a quick question or check in with a colleague during the day, instant messages work well. The downside is that notifications can be intrusive, and they are not designed for long, formal messages containing lots of detail.
  • Virtual meetings are best for working collaboratively, gaining input from several people simultaneously and having more complex or difficult conversations when an in-person meeting is not possible. They’re the next best thing, as they have a face-to-face element and allow us to pick up on (at least some) body language. They also support the building of relationships. However, they require diary co-ordination and can be exhausting due to an increased cognitive load, so use them sparingly. For example, they’re unnecessary for swift, uncomplicated communication.

Proofread each message you write

Even casual communication with colleagues transmits clues about our writing skills and professionalism. While close co-workers will forgive us the occasional missing apostrophe in a Slack message, repeated typos suggest we’ve dashed out a response or have a poor understanding of grammar.

Take special care with other people’s names – spelling these incorrectly can upset people disproportionately and make them less likely to respond, especially in the case of unsolicited emails.

Since we receive so many emails, people often scan them quickly, so we should also try to use the subject line wisely, keep messages concise and avoid long blocks of text by introducing paragraph breaks and bullet points, plus bold or italics to highlight core information such as deadlines. Where additional detail is required, we can always add separate attachments.

And then ‘emotionally proofread’ it

To research their book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy spent four years studying the science of emotions and their intersection with our lives at work.

They recommend that we ‘emotionally proofread’ our messages to ascertain how they might be interpreted and take control of our emotional presentation. What sounds clear and concise to our ears may be taken as blunt and unfriendly by a recipient – particularly somebody we don’t know very well; simply answering “no” to someone’s lengthy query about a deadline, for example.

Emotionally ambiguous messages – such as “We need to speak later.” – can appear ominous when sent to a junior colleague; forwarding an email thread with nothing but “See below” may get the recipient’s back up as we’ve left it to them to wade through messages rather than clarifying our request. Over-familiar messages to strangers (“Hi there, Lucy! How are you today?”) may come across as inauthentic and inappropriate for the context.

Meanwhile, typos not only give clues to our professionalism, but can provide a window into how we are feeling, argues Andrew Brodsky, amplifying our emotions. For example, typos in an enthusiastic message make us seem more excitable, while angry emails seem angrier when they contain typos. This gives us another reason to proofread with care.

We should also:

  • Be mindful of transmitting emotional signals through punctuation. Adding a full stop to a short phrase or sentence (for example, “Fine.”) can give the impression of finality or negativity. Typing in capital letters is perceived as shouting, and using lots of exclamation marks can give a similar impression.
  • Use emojis with care. While a well-placed emoji in a relatively informal message can help to clarify our tone and meaning, they can seem unprofessional when used too often, or with people we barely know. In general, one emoji per message is considered acceptable.
  • Be cautious with humour and personal disclosures. Both can add warmth and personality to a message, building familiarity and trust, but humour doesn’t always translate well and snippets about our lives can seem inappropriate in some scenarios. If in doubt, leave it out.
  • Choose words and phrases carefully. Is our formality coming across as pompous or condescending? Does our sign-off – "I look forward to your swift response." – sound presumptuous? Is our jargon confusing to a lay audience? 

Don’t set off the landmines

Author and social scientist David Maxfield describes ‘landmine’ messages – generally emails – as those that violate ‘mutual purpose’ (an alignment around what we are trying to achieve, rather than a selfish, single focus at the expense of common goals) or ‘mutual respect’ (which underpins constructive conversation).

He sets out six categories of landmine message:

  • Drive by: Using email to make a demand or announce a controversial decision in the hope that nobody will respond, rather than answering face-to-face questions.
  • Drama dodging: Avoiding the ‘people side’ of a conflict by hiding behind a keyboard (which tends to leave the recipient feeling ignored and disrespected).
  • Wearing a wire: Using email as a surreptitious way to get everything in writing or to create a shareable paper trail.
  • Pontificating on a position: Preaching or sounding off without danger of interruption.
  • Convenience mail: Defaulting to email because it’s easier than making a call or scheduling a meeting, even though that would be more appropriate for the context.
  • Typed tirade: Launching a tirade that we wouldn't dare to utter in person.

Not only should we avoid indulging in these practices ourselves, but we should aim to prevent serious conflict when responding to ‘landmines’ from others by refusing to reply in kind. Focusing on facts and solutions rather than on frustrations and emotions, we should pause before hitting ‘reply’ – perhaps scheduling a call or meeting to discuss issues more easily – and take the opportunity to role-model respect.

In this way, we can help to guide others in using digital communication in a manner that is thoughtful, responsible and well suited to our context and audience.

While there are few hard-and-fast rules for digital communication – and platforms are evolving at speed – taking the time to think through the channels and language that we use will help us to get our messages across efficiently and effectively, and with minimal misunderstandings.


Test your understanding

  • Describe when it’s best to use email and when instant messaging is preferable.
  • Outline three actions we can take to ‘emotionally proofread’ our messages before sending them. 

What does it mean for you?

  • Reflect on how you use digital communication at work and how long you take proofreading and ‘emotionally proofreading’ your messages.
  • Consider any digital miscommunications you’ve experienced and how you might have prevented these.


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