Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Get the Message: Email Etiquette

I feel compelled to talk about email etiquette simply because I abhor unclear, suspicious, and unwanted messages. I imagine, as with so many other societal bad habits, that it has taken some time before enough people were annoyed with sloppy email messages to finally come up with proper etiquette. Email, as we know it today, has essentially been around since the birth of the Internet, and yet so few people have a sense of good email manners, or practice good habits. The point of sending someone email is to have it read. There are many guidelines for professionals, but this post is for the everyday home user. So, if you want your message read follow these basic guidelines.

Know Your Audience: Ask yourself a few basic questions before sending your message. Who is my target audience? Is this being sent to friends, family, or business professionals? Will any of the people I intend to send this to find this offensive, annoying, or meaningless? Is this the kind of message I would want people to send to me? In other words, don't send messages with reckless abandon.

Addresses: Respect the privacy of others when sending email to a number of people who are likely not to know each other. It goes a long way in ensuring that your contacts don’t have their email addresses bandied about because you don’t know better. Enter your email address in the "To:" field, and put everyone else's in the "BCC:" field. BCC refers to “blind carbon copy”. It allows you to send people the message without any other recipient knowing who else got it. Remember carbon paper? My first job required me to use carbon paper on a typewriter. Yes, I predated computers in the workforce, but not by so much that I couldn’t change my little part of the work world with technology, but I digress.

Subject Lines: Use subject lines that are short, but help define its purpose and content. Don’t type the main message text in the Subject line, or even part of it for that matter. Messages sent this way could end up being flagged as spam, look sloppy, and careless. If the subject line looks like a toddler with broken fingers wrote it chances are it may not make it to your recipient’s inbox. As an aside, I’ll talk about how spam filters work in a future post.

Composition: Leave the chat speak out of messages unless there is purposeful intent as to how it relates to the subject matter of the message. DO NOT TYPE YOUR MESSAGE IN ALL CAPS! Doing so is the equivalent of shouting at someone. And, if you type in all caps by mistake then fix it before you send the message. Don’t be so lazy that you find it easier to offer an apology rather than retype it. Grammar rules still apply, so unless you enjoy sounding uneducated, do your best to include proper punctuation. Proper punctuation helps keep your meaning clear. That is why it was invented. Modern communication dictates that we get to the point sooner rather than later. Concise messages that convey their point are more likely to be read, and properly understood, than those that ramble with incoherent, or run-on sentences. This is particularly important if you are composing email for business purposes. Keep emoticons to a minimum. If you need to add emoticons to help convey the spirit of the message then you need to revise it, and again use proper punctuation, so that your meaning is clear without having to draw a picture. Re-read your message for clarity. If it made sense to you when you wrote it, that may not be the case the second time you read it. And, never click the send button after composing a heated reply until you have had a chance to calm down and regain your composure. It may be a misunderstanding that could be easily cleared up. It might be easier to speak to the sender in person to clear up any conflict. Messages sent in anger often have a serious and regrettable outcome.

Forwarded Messages: Just because you find a message interesting doesn't mean everyone in your contact list will. Some people really only want to hear from you, via email, when you have something to say about yourself, and not when you send an impersonal message that had been forwarded to you after half the world’s population has already seen it. And, when you can’t stop yourself from hitting the send button, please clean up the content so your audience only gets the meaningful portion of the message. No one likes spending 15 minutes scrolling through the dreck in a message looking for the real content. It is a waste of time, and can result in your recipient losing interest in what you sent them. If the message is important to you then it should be worth your time to tidy it up. One last thing, do not preface the forwarded content by saying, “I don’t normally send these on”. If you don’t normally do it then don’t make this the exception to your rule. Instead, offer a meaningful reason why you think the message will interest your recipient(s).

Chain Mail: One of social engineering’s finest achievements. Chain mail politely berates you as being a bad person by telling you that God will no longer love you, you will have an eternity of bad luck, you will die the pains of a thousand deaths, or you are denying a child recovery from cancer. I’ve seen it so many times, and it never ceases to amaze me who sends this stuff on. Chain mail is a waste of time, breaks the “Know Your Audience” rule, and is a form of spam. Sending chain mail may also violate your Internet Provider’s Terms of Service leading to suspension or termination of your account. So, before you send everyone in your contact list that message that says; “a friend’s, husband’s coworker, found out from her boyfriend who’s a firefighter, that her mother-in-law’s sister’s cousin got a suspicious package in the mail when it was left on the doorstep of the next door neighbor’s half brother’s step father’s second grandfather once removed who lives in Chicago on a block associated with known criminals and do-gooders”, do everyone a favor and look on to see that this is so absurd it can’t be real. Then promptly delete it from your email feeling good about that choice.


  1. Bravo! Now how do I forward this post to my entire address book? ;)


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