Email, like the talents of detective Adrian Monk of the eponymous USA network drama, is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it allows us to share our thoughts instantaneously, without regard to distance or cost. On the other, it allows us to share our thoughts instantaneously, without regard to distance or cost.

And that’s the rub. Email lets us express ourselves quickly, without a filter. Which means that we can say things that…perhaps we should not have. Add to that the fact that messages on a screen, unlike those conveyed face-to-face or even over the phone, lack the non-verbal and tonal cues that give context to our words. Finally, even messages that aren’t inappropriately hostile (or interpreted as such) can lead to ill will when they are sent in the wrong way.

A poorly-received email has numerous potential outcomes, none of them particularly inviting. The recipient may escalate the situation, sending a reply that does nothing to lower the temperature, and may in fact turn up the heat. Or the recipient, like a Cold War-era SAC commander seeing a single Soviet nuclear launch, may decide to empty all the silos, sending a barrage of replies to any involved party, and many uninvolved ones—mutually assured workplace destruction. Perhaps they will save it in a file they’ve been keeping of your past misdeeds, waiting for the right moment to show their chair, vice president, or human resources contact a series of unfortunate emails. They may think less of you intellectually. Or it might make them begin to resent you, and reconsider their relationship with you.

Keeping all that in mind, here are a few things to keep in mind when drafting and sending emails.

  1. Remember, this is forever.
    All email sent from your work address will remain on UNLV’s servers, even if you delete it in your own account. For better or worse, this email stands on its own, telling its own tale about your professionalism. Make sure it has a nice story to tell.
  2. Sarcasm and humor don’t always come through.
    Everyone who knows you knows that you are a regular laugh riot. Your comic stylings regularly leave your audiences in stitches. You’re right up there with Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Monty Python. So when you emailed a subordinate that if they didn’t have their annual evaluation in to you by five o’clock you would find them and kill them, it was just your quirky sense of humor, not a threat to stalk and murder. Honest.
    Imagine your emails being read by the least-funny person you know, with abysmal comic timing. That’s how they can read on the other end.
  3. Reply in a timely manner, but be patient when waiting.
    We all know how emails can build up, and we all know that you’ve got limited time in your day. But if you procrastinate in responding to an email, or let it slip through the cracks—something we’ve all been guilty of at least once—it can lead to a situation where, by the time you finally do respond, the other person doesn’t even remember what they originally emailed you about, and just remember that you took forever to get back to them.
    By the same token, when our calendar is open and we have plenty of time to respond to emails as they come in, we might be tempted to think that everyone on campus is in the same situation. They might have other meetings, or looming deadlines, that mean that a substantive reply will have to wait. It’s inconsiderate to expect an immediate reply.
  4. Read it first.
    It’s not a bad idea to give your emails a second look before sending, both to check your tone and to (hopefully) catch typos, missing words, and (my personal bane) unattached attachments.
    You might even want to consider not adding the email address until after you’ve proofread it, which can help you resist the temptation to hit “send” as soon as you finish typing.
  5. CC judiciously.
    You can send a perfectly polite email, with a friendly tone and a realistic ask. But you decided to CC your recipient’s supervisor. What message does that send?Essentially, you’re telling them that you don’t trust them to respond to you—and you’re telling their supervisor the same thing. As you can imagine, this is hardly conducive to building an atmosphere of trust, and actually engenders mistrust and resentment.
    There are some times when it is appropriate to  CC a supervisor—for example, when congratulating someone on a job well done, or thanking them for their help. And if you have a history of nonresponses from this particular recipient, it might make sense to CC their boss on regular correspondence. By that point, though, your relationship is already on the rocks, and you might want to consider working on rebuilding it.
    In the most extreme version of “CC abuse,” you might contemplate copying everyone from your dean or vice president, the provost, the president, the Board of Regents, and your favorite local news anchor in an email. While you may believe this is an effective way of putting everyone “on notice,” it might not be to your ultimate benefit. First, all those folks are already busy, and may be not be in a place where they can jump into fresh matter. To the extent that they can take the time to read your email, they will not be giving it their full attention. Second, even if they read the email, or the email thread, with the highest care, you’re presenting one piece of evidence in an ongoing conflict with zero context. This may not paint you in the best light.
    Instead of CCing campus leadership on emails that don’t directly concern them, if you have a conflict that’s manifesting in an email thread, you would likely be better served to reach out to an independent, neutral party on campus who can help you understand your options and explore conflict resolution scenarios with you. Yes, I’m talking about the Ombuds. You can make an appointment here.

Given its ease and speed, email remains an excellent mode of communication with the potential to save work and increase productivity. But, like anything else, it is best used thoughtfully.

The final test, before you hit send, should be to ask yourself: “If someone sent me this email, how would I respond?” If you don’t feel good about the answer, it might be a good idea rethink and rewrite.