The 4 Email Rule: Should It Be Enforced in Your Company?

Devon-McDonald by

Email: the best and worst thing that has happened to business in recent decades. On the one hand, emailing increases speed and efficiency. On the other, emailing leaves room for misinterpretation and promotes lazy business behaviors. Knowledge of email etiquette is important, yes. But professionals also should know when it’s time to put down the mouse completely and pick up the phone.

Last week I had lunch with my aunt, one of my business role models.  We were talking about how frustrating emailing can be, and she explained a rule of thumb that has been instated within her organization:

The 4 Email Rule: if an internal email chain has gone back and forth 4 times between 2 people without there being a resolution, then the rule is that you HAVE to pick up the phone and call the person to resolve the matter.

If clarification/agreement of goals can not be achieved after 4 emails, then the virtual dialogue is likely to go awry and waste both employees’ time and energy. This rule can (and should) be applied beyond internal emailing; from a sales perspective, if you are going back and forth with a difficult prospect or customer, there is a good chance that tone misinterpretations are running rampant in your email banter. PICK UP THE PHONE — don’t hide behind your computer screen.  It is incredibly hard to resolve matters and build true relationships using text.

One of email’s challenges is the difficulty recipients have understanding the tone of what they are reading. You may be giving off passive-aggressive vibes without even realizing it. For example:

“Okay.” Audio Sample – My Interpretation

1-3 words ending in a period. My take: You are being snappy with me, you are busy, and you want to make a point that you are cutting the conversation short.

“Okay…” Audio Sample – My Interpretation

The ellipsis. My take: You are skeptical, and slightly annoyed that you are agreeing to my question/request.

“OKAY” Audio Sample – My Interpretation

All caps. My take: You are yelling at me – I’m hassling you and you’ve had enough.

...Do you agree 100% with “my takes”? If not, then this is a direct example of how misinterpretation happens in written form.

Next time you are sending an email that may have some slight conflict associated, weigh your options — might it be a better idea to give this person a call instead to express your point, or perhaps even … oh boy … brace yourself … talk to him/her in person?!