Be nice: David Harris's guide to good manners online

It seems that email etiquette is not as basic or obvious as I always think it ought to be, so with proper respect, I would like to offer my little list here in the hope that it might help people communicate with each other a little more clearly.

Way back in 1992, I wrote a short guide to etiquette for inclusion in my email system. I thought I was simply articulating some of the more basic common-sense issues involved in communicating via this new medium, but even now in 2001 I’m regularly asked by people if they can publish my guide for their email users.

It seems that etiquette is not as basic or obvious as I always think it ought to be, so with proper respect, I would like to offer my little list here in the hope that it might help people communicate with each other a little more clearly.

Addresses and personal names

A “personal name” is an arbitrary string that many mailers will allow you to define, and will then attach 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 recognise the real recipient of the message if the address is invalid.

    For example:

    The address 344188@foo.chaos.com conveys less information than if it were written as 34188@foo.chaos.com (Ford Prefect).

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 Adobe Technical Support with the subject “PageMaker” 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 then 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 (although a short stretch of uppercase may serve to emphasise a point heavily). Try to break your message into logical paragraphs and restrict your sentences to sensible lengths. Use “white space”, or blank lines, to separate paragraphs from each other — this makes it easier to follow the flow of your message.
  • Use correct grammar and spelling. Electronic mail is all about communication — poorly worded and mis-spelt messages are hard to read and potentially confusing. Just because electronic mail is fast does not mean that it should be slip-shod, yet the worst language-mashing I have ever seen has been done in email messages. If your words are important enough to write, then 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 a while 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.
  • 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, many 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. While it is unlikely, 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.
Replies
  • 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.
  • 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. “>” is a traditional marker for quoted text, but you can use anything provided 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.
  • Ask yourself if your reply is really warranted — a message sent to a list server that only says “I agree” is probably better sent privately to the person who originally sent the message.
Signatures

A signature is a small block of text appended to the end of your messages, which 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 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 or variable 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 5000 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.
  • Avoid topical or local quotes, since 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.

Courtesy

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”. While 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 email.
  • Don’t expect an immediate answer. The fact that 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 offence. The beauty and strength of email is that it allows you to control how and when you deal with your communications.
  • Always remember that there is no such thing as a secure mail system. It is unwise to send very personal or sensitive information by email unless you encrypt it using a reliable encryptor. 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 in a question to which you expect a response, make sure you include enough information to make the response possible. For example, sending the message “What has happened to my order?” to a vendor really doesn’t give them very much to work with. 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 organisation, and any other details that might assist in tracing your order — and so on.
Smiley faces (emoticons)

Electronic mail has very nearly the immediacy of a conversation, but is totally devoid of body language. The internet counter-culture has had an answer to this problem for years — “smiley faces”, or groups of ASCII characters that are meant to look like a face turned on its side.

The most common smiley faces are probably these:

:-) or :)

A smiling face seen side-on; generally used to indicate happiness, amusement, or that a comment is intended to be funny or ironic (“<g>” or “<grin>” is also sometimes used).

:-( or :(

An unhappy face seen side on; generally used to express disappointment or sorrow.

;-)

A winking smiley face; usually indicates that something should be taken “with a grain of salt”.

;->

A mischievous smiley face; usually indicates that a comment is intended to be provocative or racy.

There are hundreds more of them, some more recognisable than others. Using the common smiley faces carefully can markedly improve the clarity of your message, because they convey nuances that approximate body language. Like any embellishment, however, overuse of smiley faces destroys their value — use them sparingly.

The bottom line

Above all else, remember that electronic mail is about communication with other people. Whenever you compose an email message, always read it over before sending it and ask yourself what your reaction would be if you received it.

Any time spent on making our email clearer is time well-spent, so let’s start taking the time.

Harris is an email original, having developed mail package Pegasus Mail from his base in Dunedin. Send email to David Harris. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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