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The Downton Abbey Guide to Email Etiquette

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Read Time: 10 min
This post is part of a series called Writing Effective Business Emails.
Why Writing Email Is a Skill—and Why Learning It Matters
How to Write Clear and Professional Emails

No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else's house - especially somebody they didn't even know.

So says Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, after a Turkish Diplomat is discovered to have died overnight while staying at Downton Abbey.

The character of Violet, played by Maggie Smith, often cracks these hilarious one-liners that reflect her respect for English tradition and etiquette.

Here's another example of the Dowager Countess's humor. When a telephone is being installed at Downton, Violet asks:

Is this an instrument of communication or torture?

Goodness knows what she would have made of the internet and email.

Downton's butler, Charles Carson, is equally traditional in his views of what's proper. "We may have to have a maid in the dining room," he reports with alarm to the Lord of Downton, Robert Crawley. "There are worse things happening in the world," Lord Crawley responds. Carson replies:

Not worse than a maid serving a duke.

For us viewers of Downton Abbey in the 21st Century, part of what makes the opinions of Dowager Countess and Mr Carson so funny is that society has changed far beyond their worst fears. We live in a world that neither Carson nor the Dowager Countess could ever have imaginedor would have wanted to imagine.

Back in the time of Downton, almost everything aristocrats did was governed by rules of etiquettefrom what they wore to the way they stirred their tea and held their teacup. Living with such restrictions seems laughable in today's world.

Life without so many rules might be simpler, but maybe the joke is really on us. While the rules of etiquette may not be as strict, or explicit, as they once were, they still exist. And because the rules are looser and less defined, it can be difficult to know what they are.

The main purpose of etiquette is to show consideration for others. Following basic social norms and conventions shows respect for other people. As an article in the Global Post explains:

Business etiquette is a means to treat coworkers and other business partners with courtesy and respect.

Etiquette also helps you get on in the world, because following the rules of etiquette shows that you know how to get along with other people.

Engaging with other people can be confusing, even at the best of times. Etiquette provides anchor points to show you're on the same page, and at least have some mutual understanding. In other words, etiquette is a subtle way of building rapport. Use etiquette correctly, and you'll get along fineeverything will run smoothly. Fail to use etiquette, and you'll raise red flags in the minds of those you're communicating with.

Etiquette is especially important on the internet, where communication is largely through text, and can easily be misunderstood.

So what etiquette should you use in email to make the recipient feel comfortable, and to make sure you look like a professional? In other words, what's the customary polite behavior when composing and sending emails?

Let's take some Downton Abbey inspiration to find out.

The Lady Cora Crawley Guide to Introductions and Departures

Cora Crawley is Lady of the Manor at Downton. It's her role to make sure guests at the house feel welcome. The etiquette of the time was to have all the family members and servants waiting outside the house when new guests arrived.

Fortunately, making introductions with email is rather simpler.

You should always open an email with someone's name. This is especially the case when you're messaging someone for the first time.

Using someone's name isn't only a matter of being polite. It also gets their attention. As Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People wrote:

Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

It's a good idea to use a salutation, too. We live in informal times, so "Hi" is a sound option in most instances. If you're emailing someone for the first time, and you wish to appear formal and deferential, then "Dear" is an appropriate choice.

As with arrivals at Downton, so with departures. Everyone lines up at the house to say goodbye.

Again, with email things are far simpler. You should close by wishing the person you're emailing well, followed by your signature.

"Kind regards" is a standard close. "Best wishes" also works well if you wish to be more personable (but less formal). If you work in a creative role, you can be more creative with how you close your emails. You can come up with a unique sign-off. The important thing is that you close your emails, and don't just leave them hanging.

Yes, this stuff is basic, but you'd be amazed at how many people fail to follow these fundamental rules of etiquette.

The Lady Rosamund Painswick Guide to Email Composition

Lady Rosamund grew up at Downton, but now lives in London. She's still close to the Crawley family, and on one occasion she agrees to help Edith, one of the Crawley daughters, out of a tricky situation by taking her abroadostensibly to "learn French".

The Dowager Countess smells a rat. “Rosamund has no interest in French,” the Dowager says. “If she wishes to be understood by a foreigner, she shouts."

Of course, shouting to be understood in any situation is rude and obnoxious. The equivalent of shouting in email is to write in ALL CAPS.


If you want your emails to be understood, then write clearly and concisely. Reverting to ALL CAPS is a failure on your part. It either shows that you've lost your temper, or that you don't understand the basic rules of online communication.

The Isobel Crawley Guide to Reading Emails

When you read an email, it's all too easy to misunderstand what the person sending the email intended. Research shows that the emotion and tone of an email is only correctly understood 56% of the time. Those odds are barely better than chance.

Misunderstandings can prove awkward if you read malice into the words of the person who sent the email.

To avoid misunderstandings, I recommend taking the approach of Isobel Crawley. She's a middle-class widow, thrust into the world of Downton by family circumstance. The Dowager Countess resents Isobel's rise in fortunes, and frequently barbs her with subtle insults.

Isobel's response? "I take that as a compliment."

When you're reading email, it's best to assume the best intentions. That way, you'll avoid misunderstandings.

Talking of compliments, it's never a bad idea to include a compliment in an email, especially when you're messaging someone for the first time.

Here's Dale Carnegie again:

Lincoln once began a letter saying: "Everybody likes a compliment." William James said: "The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated." He didn't speak, mind you, of the "wish" or the "desire" or the "longing" to be appreciated. He said the "craving" to be appreciated.

Don't be fawning. Just say something genuinely complimentary. You'll be amazed at the difference it makes in the responses you receive.

The Frightful Aunt Approach to Getting Noticed

There's an episode of Downton where Matthew Crawley, heir to Downton Abbey, breaks a valuable vase. He says sorry to the Dowager Countess.

"Don't be [sorry]," the Dowager Countess replies. "It was a wedding present from a frightful aunt. I have hated it for half a century."

If the Dowager hated the vase so much, why did she keep it? Because it was a gift.

In almost all societies in the world, gifts come with social obligations. When you give something, it entwines you into the life of the person to whom you're giving.

In particular, giving a gift creates an obligation in the recipient to return the favor.

If you're emailing someone for the first time, and you want to create an ongoing relationship with them, give them something. This can be as simple as a piece of information or a link to an article. The important thing is that the gift is relevant and helpful to them.

Be a nice person too, and you'll avoid being remembered as frightful!

The Dinner Table Guide to Cc:

At Downton dinner parties, it was important that guests felt included in the conversation. So as most aristocrats did in the early 20th century, the Downton ladies observed the etiquette of turning.

Actor Jim Carter, who plays the role of butler Charles Carson in Downton Abbey, explains how turning works:

[At] a dinner party where it wasn’t just family, all the women would look at the hostess and see which way she turned. They would all turn the same way for the first two courses so nobody got ignored. Conversation would go around that way until dessert, when it would turn. In fact, in Series 1, there was a little mention of that. Mary said, “I can’t wait for us to be able to turn,” because she was stuck talking to some dull man about tractors and she wanted to talk to Matthew Crawley.

When you're writing an email, it's important to include everyone who should be included as part of the conversation. This is what "cc:" is for.

Interesting fact: In the days before email, memos were used for office communication. People who needed to be aware of a particular memo, but who weren't responsible for acting on the memo, were sent a carbon copy. This is where "cc:" comes from.

One more note on including people in your email conversation. It's rarely a good idea to branch off a group email into a private conversation. It can look like you're going behind the backs of everyone else. If you wish to talk to an individual from within a group email, start a new email thread with them. When you're part of a group email "Reply All" should be the button you press to write a response.

Another common situation is being inadvertently included in a group email, or a group discussion that doesn't pertain to your responsibilities. You can mute an email conversation thread and have it not hit your inbox. It's similar to excusing yourself from a group conversation at a dinner party. 

Mute is a gmail feature that allows you to archive irrelevant email conversation threads. New messages added to the conversation bypass your inbox and are immediately archived. Do take care with using this feature though, as you don't want to miss out on important discussions.

The Mrs Hughes and Thomas Barrow Guide to Bcc:

Elsie Hughes is head housekeeper at Downton. As the matriarch of the servant's hall, she is often party to the secret lives of the servantswhether because they confide in her, or because she inadvertently overhears a conversation. Mrs Hughes is always discreet with the information she discovers.

Her approach contrasts with that of first footman Thomas Barrow, who is always on the lookout for secrets so he can stir trouble and use what he knows to his advantage.

Bcc: stands for "blind carbon copy". It's a way of discreetly sending email. When you send a bcc: email, the other people in the conversation don't know about the bcc: recipient.

It's rarely a good idea to use bcc:. As Ramona Emerson, tech editor of the Huffington Post says: "It's shady to lead someone to believe they are the only recipient of an email when they are not." In almost all cases, it's most appropriate to use cc:. If people discover you've been using bcc: behind their backs, they'll think you're a Thomas Barrow charactersomeone who stirs things up and causes trouble.

Is it ever appropriate to use bcc:? Here's Ramona Emerson again:

The only good time to use Bcc when sending an email is if you are sending something impersonal (change of address, selling a dresser) to a lot of people who don't necessarily know each other. No one is pretending that this email is anything but informational, so it's fine to hide the other people on it. Also, the number of people included on an email like this might number in the hundreds, and no one wants to scroll through that many names. As a rule of thumb, if the number of recipients exceeds 30, then you should bcc.

What Do You Think?

Who is your favorite Downton Abbey character? What etiquette lessons can you take from the way they behave? How might you use that lesson in your email?


Graphic Credit: Quill designed by Juan Pablo Bravo from the Noun Project.

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