Email Etiquette: Is The Thank You Email Simply a Thank You? - Leading Virtually (2023)

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Email has become part of our everyday communication both in the office and at home. Correspondence that use to take place via the phone or in person are now being done virtually via email or webmail. For instance, a businessman may send an email to his colleague that sits just a few desks away to alert him of the latest developments in the office when once he might have just made contact in person. Because of the unique nature of email contact and the prevalence of email in our everyday communication, a new set of challenges have arisen when it comes to the rules of email etiquette. These rules are much different from those that govern other forms of contact and communication. Although people have been using email for many years, it is still not always clear what the rules of contact are.

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One such rule occurs when writing a thank you email. Ambiguity in the rules of saying thank you was recently brought to my attention via an email exchange I had with a colleague who contacted Surinder for assistance with an IT-related problem. Surinder copied me on the email and told my colleague that I would be a good source for this information. I wrote back with a lengthy reply with some tips and advice for my colleague. He never took the time to simply thank Surinder or me, which I felt was inappropriate. However, others disagreed, arguing that my colleague may have felt it would have been a waste of Inbox space to send another email contact just to say thanks. This made me wonder: when is it appropriate to send a thank you via email? I would like to discuss some rules behind the email thank you message and when sending a thank you message via email is appropriate. I would also like to discuss the other roles that a thank you email can play. I think that the thank you email message is vital to effective email communication and is good etiquette when it comes to electronic communications; however, senders of a thank you email should make optimal use of the communication to make it more than a waste of space.

There are many instances when a thank you message should be sent. This is often overlooked during our busy schedule; however, not saying thank you can leave a substantial negative impression on team members. The example I noted above about my colleague serves as the perfect example of when a thank you message is appropriate and not just a waste of space. I spent time writing my reply to his question and a simple thank you was in order. Because of my colleague’s lack of etiquette in this communication, I am hesitant to go out of my way for him in the future. In situations where someone has taken the time to respond to your special request, it is important to reply with a thank you message. A good rule of thumb that you can use is to ask yourself whether or not you would expect to be thanked if you were the one providing the information. Another thing to consider is whether you would thank the person if you were receiving the information face-to-face or via phone. Sending a thank you message to a colleague is also appropriate if you do significant amount of work with that colleague but you don’t see her/him often. In these days of distributed work, saying a thank you may simply be another opportunity for you to build your relationship with a remote colleague.

On the other hand, there are times when a thank you message may be seen as Inbox filler and may even make the receiver angry. For instance, if you know the person you are dealing with is very busy and prefers brief email contact (you may see this in the form of one line emails you receive from this person), it would be appropriate to say thank you in advance along with your request. In fact, you may be helping yourself by putting a little pressure on this person to follow up on your request!

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A thank you email message can also serve multiple purposes that have less to do with email etiquette and are more practical in nature. In today’s world of spam mail and imperfect email spam filters, legitimate email often gets blocked by an email host’s spam filter or gets lost in the spam folder on the recipient’s computer. I have often not received important emails because Outlook decided that they were spam mail. In other words, email senders can not be 100% sure if their email reached the recipient as intended. Therefore, a simple “Thank You” reply to an email can serve as more than just a form of email etiquette or wasteful contact; it can be an important way of confirming the receipt of critical or time sensitive material. A thank you message can be also be used to move a project or a set of tasks forward. When you receive somebody’s work, you can thank that person to not only acknowledge the work done but also to indicate what the next steps are (e.g., I will review your work and integrate it with the rest of the proposal) and to inform the sender about her/his next task (e.g., I look forward to reviewing the next part that you will be submitting next week). In other words, the thank you email can be used as a “springboard” for the next step in a series of communications between two people. It reinforces a time line for you and your colleague and sets expectations for what is to do be done next. Thus, if utilized effectively, a thank you message can become an important coordination message for your team.

It is important for us to keep in mind that email communication is prone to miscommunication. Lack of courtesy and etiquette in email communication can create feelings of negativity and resentment in a team. It can reduce morale if team members do not feel that their work or input is appreciated. At the same time, a simple ‘thank you’ email message can serve practical purposes for effective project management if used correctly. There are some instances in which you can excuse yourself from sending a thank you email. If you have substantial face-to-face contact with the person, communicate with the sender regularly in other ways, and if the issue is not a major issue, feel free to not say thank you via email. However, you should be conscious of simply putting away an email before considering saying thank you. It is important to put yourself into the other person’s shoes and asking yourself if you expect to be thanked for what you have communicated. And, if possible, make your thank you message more than a simple thank you message by using it as a tool for moving your team and its project forward.

Continue reading to see a “cheat sheet” with a summary of this post for a handy reference in writing thank you emails!

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When To Send a Thank You Email:

  • If the sender has gone out of her/his way to provide you with something;
  • If you would want to be thanked if you were providing the information you received;
  • If you would thank the person had the communication taken place on the phone or in person;
  • If the email was about a critical or time-sensitive issue and you believe it is important for the sender to know you have received it and will act on it in a timely fashion;
  • If you do significant amount of work with your colleague but don’t see her/him often.

When You Might Not Need To Send a Simple Thank You Email:

  • If you know the person is very busy and would not appreciate a thank you email (you may see this in the form of one line emails from that person); however, you can thank this person in advance with your request;
  • You meet that person often and can thank her/him during your next meeting;
  • The email you received was about something insignificant (e.g., chain letters, etc.).

When to Make the Most Out of Your Thank You Email:

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  • When you want to keep the momentum going on a project and set expectations for the future steps and deadlines.


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