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Email Netiquette - Part 3

This is the third in a series of four. The second can be found at http://pthree.org/2010/09/19/email-netiquette-part-2/. Continuing our discussion from the previous post, I'll expound on points seven through nine in this post.

  1. Use plain text (preferred) or HTML
  2. Top-post only when forwarding. Bottom-post otherwise.
  3. Trim your replies.
  4. Keep you signature under five lines, and use the signature separator "-- " (dash, dash, space).
  5. Do not attach unnecessary files, keep attachments small, and don't attach proprietary formats.
  6. Keep the width of your message under 80 characters
  7. Use a client that sends threading headers.
  8. Reply only to the necessary people (don't abuse CC: or "reply to all").
  9. Be short and concise. Don't ramble (stay on topic).
  10. Break up your paragraphs.
  11. Use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation (avoid CAPS).
  12. Don't answer spam, and don't send out spam.

Use a client that sends threading headers.
When on mailing lists, it's important to know what the main topic of a subthread is about and who is talking or referring to whom. Also, when replying, it's important to keep your reply in the thread, and not start a new thread, because your client isn't sending the appropriate headers to the list. As a result, make sure your client is configured to send the following headers in your email: Message-ID, In-Reply-To, References, and Supersedes.

This isn't difficult to do. Most email clients that I've used on the GNU/Linux desktop do this for you automatically. But I have seen threads where they were broken up and started fresh, because someone's MUA didn't send the appropriate headers. As a result, because the thread is fractured and broken into many different email threads, as you can imagine, it's very hard to follow conversations.

Reply only to the necessary people (don't abuse CC: or "reply to all").
When on mailing lists, and you wish to reply to a message, unless you want to contact the author of the message off-list, you should be replying to the list itself, not the author AND the list. This means, that when using "reply to all" or "reply to list", make sure that only the mailing list address is the one you are replying to, and that your are not replying to the original author plus the list itself. This means the original author will get your message twice. So, please pay attention when you're composing your reply, that you are addressing the appropriate people, and not producing any redundancies. Mozilla Thunderbird 3 has a "reply to list" button that should be used rather than "reply to all" when replying to mailing lists. Mutt can be configured to also reply to just the list by pressing "L". Check your MUA to make sure it it setup correctly to reply only to the list, and not to both the author of the mail and the list.

In the corporate sector, usually a mailing list consists of many individual email addresses, some in the "To:" field, others in the "CC:" field. I've seen this get out of hand many times. When you're replying to a thread where a mailing list address is not used, but individual email addresses are, think to yourself who the right recipients of the mail should be. If everyone on the list should be notified, then fine. But, if you're addressing a specific case that will only benefit one or two people in the thread, then maybe you should cut a lot of names out of the reply. It can be quite annoying when someone sends a baby announcement to a corporate mailing list, and then everyone on the list presses the "reply to all" button, and everyone on the list receives a "Congratulations!" reply. The "reply" button going ONLY to the original recipient is the appropriate use here.

Be short and concise. Don't ramble (stay on topic).
The longer an email message is, the more likely they are not going to read the entire message. Especially if you have a habit of it. When people read email, they want it to be short and sweet. Give me the gist of the idea, with pertinent information. If I need clarification, I'll reply asking for such. No one wants to spend five minutes reading your rambling. Which, further means, that if you engage into a debate, and it begins to turn emotional, look at your reply. Is it getting lengthy, because you want the recipient to understand how you feel? They are probably not going to read it. In that case, it's probably best to step away from the reply for a day, before getting back to it. At that point, you'll probably notice the reply is substantially shorter, and less emotional.

A problem with rambling on and on is drifting off topic. Here's an example of a reply to an email where the sender drifts from one topic to the other. The email is extremely lengthy, and hardly relevant to the topic at hand. Feel like reading it? Neither do I. The KISS principle applies to email: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

{ 3 } Comments

  1. Joe using Firefox 3.6.10 on Windows XP | September 20, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    These are great tips that are very useful. Most people take advantage of email because it's so easy. Even in marketing companies send out email for the wrong reasons at the wrong times. It's gotten to the point where people are even taking email marketing training courses just to make sure people are reading the messages.

    Your list though is clear and to the point and easy to remember. Thanks for posting!

  2. Neil Greenwood using Google Chrome 6.0.472.53 on Ubuntu | September 29, 2010 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    The link to part 2 is incorrect: the date should be 19 instead of 18!

  3. Aaron using Google Chrome 6.0.472.62 on GNU/Linux | September 29, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Ah, good catch! I wonder how that happened. Fixed! Thanks!

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