8 common faux pas in English Business emails

business english faux pas

No-one likes to make a faux pas. It’s a French phrase used in English to refer to words or behaviour that cause offense or embarrassment. However, if English isn’t your first language, it’s all too easy to accidentally make faux pas when writing business emails.

Why? It’s largely because, when you write an English business email, you need to stick to lots of unspoken rules about language, tone of voice, punctuation and more.

Luckily, most of these rules are easy to learn and apply. So, if you want to write business emails and avoid making embarrassing mistakes, read on! This mini guide will help you avoid 8 of the most common faux pas made by native and non-native English speakers alike.

1. Getting the greeting wrong

When you start your email, you’ve got two main choices about how to address the person you’re writing to.

In most cases, you’ll use the greeting ‘hi’. This is standard usage if you’re emailing colleagues or people you know reasonably well, such as a client you’re in regular contact with. However, you only ever use ‘hi’ with someone’s first name, never with their title and surname.

  • Correct example: Hi Sarah
  • Incorrect example: Hi Mrs Jones

For more formal emails, you’ll use ‘dear’ rather than ‘hi’. This might be more appropriate if you are writing to a potential customer, or someone you don’t know very well. The most formal opening uses ‘dear’ with a person’s title and surname, but if you want to be slightly informal and respectful at the same time, you can use ‘dear’ with a person’s first name.

  • Most formal: Dear Mrs Jones
  • Less formal: Dear Sarah

These days, particularly in creative industries, some people will use ‘hey’ instead of ‘hi’. It’s best to only ever use this if someone has already sent you an email using ‘hey’.

  • Most informal: Hey Sarah

One faux pas you absolutely must avoid is beginning an email with just the recipient’s name. It comes across as abrupt and rude. For the same reason, never start an email without a greeting.

2. Getting the recipient’s name wrong

Check and double check you’ve addressed your email to the right person and that you’ve spelled their name correctly. Lots of English names can be spelled in different ways, so always check you’ve got it right. Some common names with different spellings include:

  • Sarah / Sara
  • Beverley / Beverly
  • Claire / Clare
  • Damian / Damion / Damien
  • Joe / Jo

Not much annoys people more than someone spelling their name wrong. So make sure you’ve got it right and that your autocorrect hasn’t changed it to something different!

3. Using vague subject lines

One thing that really irritates recipients of business emails is a vague subject line or – worse – no subject line at all.

Avoid giving emails subject lines such as ‘Hello’, ‘URGENT’, ‘?????’ or ‘Quick question’. These tell the recipient very little. Instead, try and be specific so the reader knows what the message is about and can easily find your email again. Good examples might include:

  • Agenda for finance team meeting 07/12/2021
  • Quotation needed for Mrs A Price
  • Fire drill planned for Thursday

Never use the subject line to convey your message instead of the email itself. A blank email with a subject line like ‘Call me’ or ‘Send me your report by 5pm’ would be considered rude and aggressive.

4. Not striking the right tone

In business emails, you need to write as simply and clearly as possible. While you don’t usually need to be ultra-formal, you don’t want your emails to be too familiar or informal. For this reason, always avoid the following faux pas.

  • Emoticons (save these for your friends ?)
  • Lots of exclamation marks or question marks (????????!!!!!!)
  • OVERUSING CAPITAL LETTERS TO MAKE A POINT (people will think you’re shouting)
  • Using kisses (you don’t really want to be sending lots of xxxxxxxx to your boss!)
  • Using slang or informal acronyms (such as words like ‘laters’ for ‘goodbye’ or vulgar acronyms like WTF)

5. Using strange fonts

Never use unusual fonts or text colours in a business email. Ideally stick to a sans-serif font like Arial, Helvetica or Calibri and use black text.

  • Black text in a professional-looking font like Arial
  • Brightly coloured text in Comic Sans MS

Business emails should be easy to read, so resist the temptation to use odd typefaces or different colours.

6. Sending angry emails

Let’s face it, some colleagues will make us angry from time to time. If you receive an email that infuriates you, resist the temptation to send an angry response. Write one if you must, but then delete it – never send it.

Angry emails are one of the worst faux pas you can make in the workplace. So wait until you feel calmer before you respond.

7. Using passive aggressive phrases

One of the most infuriating things about business English emails is when someone uses passive aggressive phrases to get their point across. Being passively hostile is a major faux pas and needs to be avoided at all costs. However, this can be a difficult mistake to avoid because many passive aggressive phrases seem perfectly polite at first glance. There’s a great list of these here, but particularly try to avoid phrases like the below:

  • ‘Correct me if I’m wrong’ (translation: ‘I’m not wrong. You are’)
  • ‘I’m a bit concerned’ (translation: ‘I’m furious’)
  • ‘With the greatest respect’ (translation: ‘You’re an idiot’)
  • ‘I was a bit disappointed that…’ (translation: ‘I’m annoyed with you’)

Avoiding passive aggressive phrases is one of the hardest faux pas to avoid. But the more you send and receive business emails in English, the easier it will become to spot them!

8. Signing off inappropriately

How you sign off your emails depends on how formal you want to be.

The most common sign-offs include:

  • Regards
  • Best wishes
  • Sincerely (for more formal letters)
  • Kind regards
  • Best regards

If you know the recipient well, you can be a bit more informal and use the following.

  • Best (a shortened version of ‘Best wishes’)
  • Cheers (though can sound strange if you’re not British or Australian)
  • Kindest (short for ‘Kindest regards’ or ‘Kindest wishes’)

The following ones can often be seen as a faux pas, so are best avoided:

  • Love (far too informal for business use!)
  • Thx (short for ‘thanks’ – it’s too informal)
  • Thanks (never use ‘Thanks’ to end a letter – it’s passive aggressive. However, ‘Thanks!’ with an exclamation mark is fine.
  • BR (short for ‘Best regards’

The worst faux pas of all is to use no sign-off at all. It’s considered extremely rude, so don’t do it!

Key takeaways

Avoiding faux pas in business English emails can be tricky at first, but if you follow the suggestions above it will soon become second nature. And remember, practice makes perfect! So why not give your English language skills a boost with live online classes with English Online? These small, tutor-led groups are ideal for practising your English with other learners and for asking questions. Why not sign up today?