Email Etiquette: Summary

This is a summary of a four-part series on email etiquette.

This page is not intended to be a full guide to email etiquette: I wrote the other pages for a reason. It will probably be nice to read if you’ve read through the other posts and want a quick refresher, or if you’re lazy and just want to see what I have to say quickly. For this reason, I also haven’t put a lot of links in that I could have—if you’re interested, click the main article link and find more information there.

Part 1: Using the Cc and Bcc Fields

  • Sometimes you shouldn’t put everyone’s email addresses in the To field. The other two fields are there for a good reason.
    • The Cc field can be used to indicate that you are sending a message to a certain person and only want to notify others of this.
    • The Bcc field should be used when you are sending an announcement to many people and don’t need to share people’s email addresses with other recipients of the message.
    • You can also use the Bcc field to hide the fact that you’re sending a copy of an email to somebody else who needs to see it, or if you need to send a copy of an email to yourself and the Sent folder won’t do the trick in your present situation.
    • If your email client will not allow you to put nothing in the To field (because you want to put all the email addresses in the Bcc field), put yourself in the To field.

Part 2: Subjects and Attachments

  • Make your subject line as concise as possible without removing important meaning.
    • If you want someone to do something, make that clear in the subject line.
    • Write your subject in title case or sentence case, as appropriate, not in all lowercase.
    • If nothing else, at least put something in the subject line.
  • Before attaching files to your email, consider whether you really need attachments. Instead, could you:
    • Paste the contents of some of those files into the body of the email?
    • Remove some of the files?
    • Zip the files so the recipient doesn’t have to download a ton of files?
    • Post to a photo-sharing website? (Only applicable if you’re attaching pictures, of course.)
  • If you need to send a large file, use a service such as Dropbox to share it.
  • To avoid forgetting to attach a file to a message:
    • Attach the file as soon as you think that you need to include a file. If you do it now, you can’t forget to do it later.
    • Turn on your email client’s “undo send” feature. This way, if you remember right after sending the message that you forgot your attachment, you can still take it back.
    • Use Gmail, which provides a warning if you write “attached” in your message but don’t attach a file.
  • Don’t attach unusual file formats to emails and assume that the recipients will be able to read them. The following file formats are probably email-safe: JP(E)G, PNG, GIF, TIF(F), PDF, RTF, TXT, HTM(L), WAV, MP3, DOC, XLS, PPT.
  • To avoid emailing a document back and forth zillions of times, use Google Docs if you’re collaborating on a project.

Part 3: Replies and Formatting

  • Don’t send replies to everybody without a good reason—stop for a moment and consider who really needs to see your message. This can make using email better for everyone by eliminating unnecessary messages from everybody’s inboxes.
    • For examples on when I suggest replying to everyone and when I don’t, see the full article.
  • Avoid backgrounds, changing the font or colors, or putting unnecessary images in emails.
    • Bold or italics, links, and the occasional embedded image can improve the presentation of your emails. Anything more is probably going into the “annoying” section of the scale.

Part 4: Odds and Ends

  • Signatures are nice—just consider what information about yourself will be useful in an email signature and what won’t.
    • Putting your email address in an email signature is pretty silly unless it’s somehow different from the address that you send your email from.
    • Snippets, quotes, and similar things are fine, but:
      • Keep it clean and inoffensive to everybody, no matter what account you’re on. You never know when you might be sending formal email and forget to check what you had in your signature.
      • Change it occasionally. The point of including something witty in your email signature is to keep people interested, not to bore them by sending them the same thing for years in a row.
      • Don’t create a monstrously long signature. Four or five lines is probably plenty.
    • Remove your signature if it’s unnecessary or gets in the way of your email.
  • Don’t forward chain emails, no matter what they say. Check out Snopes to see if they might actually have some grain of truth in them.
  • Keep your email as short as possible.
    • If it has to be long, summarize your email at the top and consider apologizing for and/or explaining the length.
    • Instead of sending a single person a five-paragraph email, pick up the phone and call them.
Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad
http://www.thetechnicalgeekery.com

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me.

Copyright 2012 Soren Bjornstad.
For terms of reuse and redistribution, visit
http://thetechnicalgeekery.com/licensing.

Email Etiquette (4): Odds and Ends

This is the fourth and final part of a multi-part series. Previous posts were “Replies and Formatting,” “Subjects and Attachments,” and “Using the Cc and Bcc Fields.” There is also a summary.

This week has no particular focus except to deal with a few more things I thought of: email signatures, chain emails, and length of emails.

Signatures

Email signatures are good. It’s nice to be able to easily find somebody’s name at the bottom of their email, especially if they don’t have their “from” name in their email client set to their actual name (so you get something like “From: hq723″ instead of “From: Soren Bjornstad”). If somebody might want your address, phone number, or website, those are good things to put in as well. Putting your email address is a waste of space unless you’re using a different address than normal: this is what the “reply” button and the email header are for.

If it’s not a work email (and maybe if it is, depending on the environment), creativity is always appreciated—just don’t go overboard and make it something that could potentially offend somebody. Quotes or interesting observations are always welcome. If you choose to include a quote or something similar in your signature, changing it every so often is nice; I know more than one person who has had precisely the same email signature for over five years. Even the most creative snippets tend to lose some of their luster after that long.

Don’t make your email signature more than four or five lines. HTML and images are probably unnecessary. Also don’t be cautious to strip your signature from your email if you’re responding to a mailing list that knows perfectly well who you are or you’re adding to a long chain of people adding a small amount of information to an email and sending it on. (Feel free to strip other people’s signatures and “so-and-so replied:” from those emails too; nobody will ever do it if you don’t take the initiative.)

Chain Emails

Do me a favor: Next time you get an email that ends by telling you that if you don’t send it to ten more people your computer will explode spontaneously, don’t forward it to me.

If you get an email warning you about something that actually seems important:

  1. Don’t send it to anybody.
  2. It’s probably completely fake.
  3. If you still really aren’t sure whether it might be true, check out Snopes first. (Do this even if the email claims that Snopes has confirmed the veracity of its statement—Snopes is becoming well-known enough that I’ve seen more than one chain email/Facebook post that makes a false claim.)
  4. If you really received chain mail that tells the truth, you still probably shouldn’t forward it to anybody. If there really is an email virus spreading like wildfire (which really doesn’t happen anymore anyway), then people will learn about it on the news anyway. Do you really need to send yet another email?
I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir here—most people interested in reading this blog are probably not the type to forward email indiscriminately. But please take this to heart. So much complete misinformation gets spread this way, not to mention the annoyance of the resulting flood of email.

Email Length

Try to avoid making your email more than a paragraph or two long. If it really needs to be longer, you should start worrying about structure. Include a paragraph or at least a line or two summarizing the email and explaining what you’re going to talk about in it. If it seems appropriate, you also might consider apologizing for the length and explaining why it’s as long as it is.

Why? Five-paragraph emails don’t scan well. Sometimes I get a copy of an email I don’t really need, and I like to be able to discard it quickly instead of wasting my time reading the whole thing. If I have a flood of email, it’s nice to be able to immediately determine which emails require immediate action and which ones can wait until I’ve finished sifting through emails. And besides, nobody likes reading you ramble on forever about the same thing. If it’s that complex a topic and it’s not for mass distribution, you should probably just pick up the phone and call the other person—that will be faster anyway.

Summary

I’ve compiled another post that summarizes all the main ideas in all four sections of this post. Check it out, and send it on to people who annoy you with their emailing habits. :-)

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad
http://www.thetechnicalgeekery.com

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me.

Copyright 2012 Soren Bjornstad.
For terms of reuse and redistribution, visit
http://thetechnicalgeekery.com/licensing.

Email Etiquette (3): Replies and Formatting

This is part three of a multi-part series. Last week we had Part 2, “Subjects and Attachments.” Part 1 was “Using the Cc and Bcc Fields.”

This week I’ll first discuss when you should reply to everybody and when you should only reply to one person, then consider the problem of how much formatting in your email is too much.

Replying to Everybody

Sometimes everybody really does need to receive your reply. Other times, they really don’t. This is sometimes a difficult problem to deal with: is it better to err on the side of replying to everybody (thus sending people a bunch of spam) or the side of replying to only one person (and leaving people out of the loop)? That’s really a matter of personal preference, but usually you should be able to make a pretty good decision. Here are a few cases:

  • If somebody asked you about a meeting or similar group activity, you should reply to everybody. Otherwise other people might not realize that you’ve already replied and make plans that don’t work for you behind your back (like you just did to them!).
  • There is very rarely a sensible reason to send an email that says something like “Thanks” or “Cool, I’ll do that” to everybody. In fact, you might consider whether you really need to send that email at all—in many cases, all it will end up doing is wasting the other person’s time. (Of course, there are plenty of times when being courteous is intelligent. But it’s at least worth thinking about.)
  • If you’re on a mailing list and really only need to reply to one person, see if the mailing list allows you to see the email address of the person who sent it. If so, don’t hit reply—copy that email address, then compose a new email to that person, rather than to the entire list.
  • Consider choosing “reply to all,” then removing several people’s names from the address list. Perhaps only the person who just sent you an invitation and the person you know who just responded need to get an email, not the other three people on the original mailing as well.
  • If somebody sent you an email with two hundred names in the To: field, first of all, shame on them. Second of all, please double-check to make sure you didn’t hit “reply to all” before you send the email. If there’s something worse than getting a completely useless email from somebody, it’s getting a completely useless email from somebody you don’t even know.

I know some people will say, “Big deal! It doesn’t take that long to delete a useless email—why should I bother to think about all this before I send email?” But think about it this way: either you spend a few seconds thinking about who needs to get your email, or someone else spends a few seconds deleting your email because she didn’t need it. If all of us were polite and spent a few seconds considering who needed to receive our emails, then we would all have fewer useless messages drifting around in our inboxes (that sometimes even interrupt our work because we notice that we have a new email and go to see what it is). And we wouldn’t lose any time because of it, either—we would simply have moved those few seconds from the receiving to the sending end.

HTML and Formatting

Have you ever gotten an email that was in 18-point italic red text with a blue speckled background? I sure have. And guess what: it doesn’t make you look cool. All it does is strain people’s eyes, make them annoyed because it’s difficult to read, and make their email take longer to load. Simply put: stick with plain text unless you actually have a good reason to add formatting.

Some people dislike getting any formatting in email (mostly the technical people who use text-based email programs, for whom any formatting displays as HTML markup and random gibberish). You’ll probably know who these people are, because they’ll write you back asking you to please send them plain text-only email in the future. If you’re not dealing with one of those people, adding some bold text, a link, or maybe a relevant image to the body of your email looks professional and is perfectly acceptable. Changing the font of your entire email to Comic Sans, putting the entire thing in italics, or adding a background is obnoxious.

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad
http://www.thetechnicalgeekery.com

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me.

Copyright 2012 Soren Bjornstad.
For terms of reuse and redistribution, visit
http://thetechnicalgeekery.com/licensing.

Email Etiquette (2): Subjects and Attachments

This is part two of a multi-part series. Last week (actually, two weeks ago) we had Part 1, “Using the Cc and Bcc Fields.”

This week I’ll discuss choosing better subjects for your email, as well as many different aspects of the complicated mess that is called “email attachments”: when you should use attachments and when you shouldn’t, how to avoid sending too many attachments, and what kinds of files most people can be counted on to be able to read.

Subjects

Here are some bad subjects:

“(no subject)”
“Please walk me through…”
“Request”

Your subject line should be concise, yet make it clear what the email is about. If you want someone to do something, try to make that clear in the subject. Most importantly, though, make it obvious what the email is about—if you need to find that email two months in the future, it’ll be a lot easier if the subject is sensible.

So try something like “Request for Book” or “Link to [website we were talking about]”. And for heaven’s sake, write something in the subject line. Emails with “no subject” even get filtered out by some email filters, and they make it look like you were in a hurry or didn’t know what you were doing.

A personal pet peeve of mine is when people write subjects in all lowercase. Depending on what your subject is, it’s either a title or a sentence describing the email. If it’s a title, it should be in title case; if it’s a sentence, the first letter should be capitalized (you don’t need a period, though; in fact, it looks better without).

See this Lifehacker post for more interesting tips on keeping your email a bit more efficient.

Attachments

Before you attach anything to your message, consider whether you really need an attachment at all. I get a bit annoyed when people attach a Word document to an email, then I go to the trouble of downloading it and opening it in a word processor to find that it contains a five-sentence message in plain text. If your attachment is another part of the message, just copy and paste it into the body of the email. If the problem is that the formatting comes out horribly broken when you paste it in, you might choose to mention that in the email. At the very least, provide a description of what the attachment is. Many people don’t have filenames that make sense outside their folder structure and their mind, and few people remember to rename files before attaching them to emails, so describing what the attachment is really helps.

Also try to avoid attaching zillions of files to one email. If you have fifty pictures, you ought to find a better way to send them than attaching each one individually. If you send it to people who don’t have a “download all” button on their email client, you’re going to make them pretty annoyed. If you have more than three attachments, you’re probably getting a bit excessive. If you have too many attachments, you could try one of the following:

  • Do you really need all those files? Some of them may be unnecessary, could be combined, or could be posted in the body of the email.
  • If they’re all related (for instance, if you have fifteen pictures), at least put them in a zip file so the recipient only has to download the file once. If you don’t know how to zip files or the person you’re mailing them to doesn’t know how to unzip them, take a look at this Microsoft Knowledge Base article. If you’re not using Windows, a Google search for “zip files” and “Mac” or “Linux” or “BSD” or what have you ought to get you instructions. Note: “Zipping” files is sometimes known as “compressing” them, although there are other ways to compress files besides ZIP files; “unzipping” is sometimes called “extracting.” Also, for no apparent reason than being different, Microsoft likes to call zip files “Compressed (zipped) Folders.”
  • If you have more than a couple of pictures, you should post them on a photo-sharing website, Facebook, or something similar rather than attaching them to an email.

It used to be that sending someone an attachment of more than a few hundred kilobytes was considered rude; in many cases sending a 10MB attachment could cause the remainder of the recipient’s mail to bounce until he checked it and deleted the attachment. Now that free webmail services offer 7 gigabytes of storage and nearly everybody in a developed country has broadband internet, this is rarely a problem. However, most email programs will not let you send attachments larger than 25MB or so—if you need to send something larger than that, you should consider a service like Dropbox, which will let you store and sync up to 2GB of information for free (accessible with a public link if you so desire).

No discussion of attachments would be complete without a mention of the dreaded “oh crap, I forgot to attach the file” moment. I find that the best plan for avoiding this is simply to attach the file the moment you think about it. If you open an email intending to send someone a file, attach the file and then write the message. If you’re writing a message and think “oh, I should include this file,” then take a break from writing the message, attach the file, and then finish your message. Also, I find that I usually notice I’ve forgotten a file within a few seconds. If your email client has an “undo send” feature, turn it on—it’s a lifesaver. And Gmail also gives you this handy warning on occasion:

One more thing to avoid is blindly assuming that the recipient will be able to read the file format you send them. If you send someone an Adobe PageMaker file and they don’t have Adobe PageMaker, they’re going to have to write you back and tell you they can’t read the file. Also annoying is receiving a .docx file when you don’t have Word 2007. (Most word processors can now read the files, but sometimes they have difficulty with the formatting, and some people have not installed the Compatibility Pack for earlier versions of Word.)

Stick to established formats unless you know that the recipient has the same software as you (for instance, if you work in the same office). Everyone with a computer from this century should be able to read the following standard formats (among others): JP(E)G, PNG, GIF, TIF(F), PDF, RTF, TXT, HTM(L), WAV, MP3.

Nearly everyone (except a few activists who have a good point but sometimes go a bit over the top, in my opinion) can also read .DOC files. Many people can read .DOCX files, but unless you have a specific reason to send them, it’s often better to save them down to .DOC files or paste them into the email. If you need to send a spreadsheet or PowerPoint, it’s probably best to use the Microsoft Office formats (.XLS and .PPT), even though you’re contributing to and encouraging a Microsoft monopoly, simply because they’re more established and likely to be openable.

You can use Google Docs if you need to collaborate on a project; it lets you work together on one copy (at the same time) instead of mailing files back and forth. Sometimes it clobbers your formatting a bit, but most of the time it works extremely well. I personally wouldn’t use it as my regular word processor, but for working with others it does exactly what it says on the box.

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad
http://www.thetechnicalgeekery.com

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me.

Copyright 2012 Soren Bjornstad.
For terms of reuse and redistribution, visit
http://thetechnicalgeekery.com/licensing.