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Email Basics

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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Email Etiquette

Email is a form of communication, and all communication is governed by certain rules. These rules are important in business because they establish a certain formality, like all business correspondence.

Addresses and Personal Names

A "personal name" is an arbitrary string that many mailers will allow you to define and is attached to your email address as a textual comment.

Always provide a personal name if your mail system allows it. A personal name attached to your address identifies you better than your address can on its own.

Use a sensible personal name: "Guess who" or other such phrases are annoying as personal names and hinder the recipient's quick identification of you and your message.

If your mail system lets you use personal names in the addresses to which you send mail, try to use them. This will often help a postmaster recognize the real recipient of the message if the address is invalid.


The address 344188@foo.chaos.com conveys less information than if it were written as John Devo 344188@foo.chaos.com. Your email client may use a different protocol for adding your name.

Subject Lines

Always include a subject line in your message. Almost all mailers present you with the subject line when you browse your mailbox, and it's often the only clue the recipient has about the contents when filing and searching for messages.

Make the subject line meaningful. For example, sending a message to WordPerfect Technical Support with the subject "WordPerfect" is practically as unhelpful as having no subject at all.

If you are replying to a message but are changing the subject of the conversation, change the subject, too—or better still, start a new message altogether. The subject is usually the easiest way to follow the thread of a conversation, so changing the conversation without changing the subject can be confusing and can make filing difficult.

Message Length, Content, and Format

Try to match your message length to the tenor of the conversation: If you are only making a quick query, keep it short and to the point.

In general, keep to the subject as much as possible. If you need to branch off onto a totally new and different topic, it's often better to send a new message, which allows the recipient the option of filing it separately.

Don't type your message in all uppercase—it's extremely difficult to read. And you should note that many spam filters see such things as spam, and you may lose your message. Try to break your message into logical paragraphs and restrict your sentences to sensible lengths.

Use correct grammar and spelling. Electronic mail is all about communication. Poorly worded messages with misspelled words are hard to read and potentially confusing. Just because electronic mail is fast does not mean that it should be slipshod. The worst language-mashing I have ever seen has been done in email messages. If your words are important enough to write, they're also important enough to write properly.

Avoid public "flames"—messages sent in anger. Messages sent in the heat of the moment generally only exacerbate the situation and are usually regretted later. Settle down and think about it for awhile before starting a flame war. (Try going and making yourself a cup of coffee—it's amazing how much you can cool down even in that short a time, besides which, a cup of good coffee is a great soother. If that doesn't work, try bourbon.)

If your mail program supports fancy formatting (bold, italic, and so on) in the mail messages it generates, make sure that the recipient has a mail program that can display such messages. At the time of writing, most Internet mail programs do not support anything other than plain text in messages, although this will change over time.

Be very careful about including credit card numbers in electronic mail messages. Electronic mail can be intercepted in transit, and a valid credit card number is like money in the bank for someone unscrupulous enough to use it.


Include enough of the original message to provide a context. Remember that email is not as immediate as a telephone conversation and the recipient may not recall the contents of the original message, especially if he or she receives many messages each day. Including the relevant section from the original message helps the recipient to place your reply in context.

Include only the minimum you need from the original message. One of the most annoying things you can encounter in email is to have your original five-page message quoted back at you in its entirety with the words "Me too" added at the bottom. Quote back only the smallest amount you need to make your context clear. And it's often better to put your comments at the beginning, not at the end.

Use some kind of visual indication to distinguish between text quoted from the original message and your new text—this makes the reply much easier to follow. The greater than symbol (>) is a traditional marker for quoted text but you can use anything, provided that its purpose is clear and you use it consistently.

Pay careful attention to where your reply is going to end up: It can be embarrassing for you if a personal message ends up on a mailing list, and it's generally annoying for the other list members. There are a lot of stories in many companies about the "love letter" sent to everyone!

Ask yourself whether your reply is really warranted. A message sent to a list server that says only "I agree" is probably better sent privately to the person who originally sent the message.


A signature is a small block of text appended to the end of your messages that usually contains your contact information. Many mailers can add a signature to your messages automatically. Signatures are a great idea but are subject to abuse; balance is the key to a good signature.

Always use a signature if you can. Make sure it identifies who you are and includes an alternative means of contacting you (phone and fax are usual). In many systems, particularly where mail passes through gateways, your signature may be the only means by which the recipient can even tell who you are.

Keep your signature short—four to seven lines is a handy guideline for maximum signature length. Unnecessarily long signatures waste bandwidth (especially when distributed to lists) and can be annoying.

Some mailers allow you to add random strings to your signature. This is well and good and can add character if done carefully. You should consider the following basic rules though:

  • Keep it short. The length of your quote adds to the length of your signature. A 5,000-word excerpt from Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" used as a signature will not win you many friends.

  • Definitions of "offensive" vary widely: Avoid quotes that might offend people on the grounds of religion, race, politics, or sexuality.

  • Try to avoid topical or local quotes, because they may be meaningless to recipients in other towns, countries, or cultures.

  • Variable signatures are usually best if they're amusing; polemical outbursts on politics or other such topics will turn most people off, but a one-liner that brings a smile can make someone's day.


Electronic mail is all about communication with other people, and as such, some basic courtesy never goes amiss.

If you're asking for something, don't forget to say "please." Similarly, if someone does something for you, it never hurts to say "thank you." Although this might sound trivial or even insulting, it's astonishing how many people who are perfectly polite in everyday life seem to forget their manners in their emails.

Don't expect an immediate answer. Just because you don't get an answer from someone in 10 minutes does not mean that he or she is ignoring you and is no cause for offense. Electronic mail is all about dealing with your communications when you are able to do so.

Always remember that there is no such thing as a secure email system. It is unwise to send very personal or sensitive information by email unless you encrypt it using a reliable encryption program. Remember the recipient—you are not the only person who could be embarrassed if a delicate message falls into the wrong hands.

Include enough information. If you are sending a question to which you expect a response, make sure you include enough information to make the response possible. For example, sending the message, "My spreadsheet program doesn't work" to Lotus Technical Support really doesn't give them very much to work with; similarly, sending the message "What has happened to my order?" to a vendor is also unhelpful. When requesting technical support, include a description of the problem and the version of the program you're using; when following up on an order, include the order number, your name and organization, and any other details that might assist in tracing your order, and so on.

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