E-mail etiquette

E-mail is still the most popular activity on the internet, and is one of the oldest too. But instead of aging gracefully as you would expect for an internet technology, its slowing loosing the usability and elegance it once had, due to mis-education of new users when they follow poorly thought out conventions.

New users are uneducated in the etiquette of writing e-mails that has been developed over its life, while Microsoft Outlook and other free e-mail providers (I’m looking at your Hotmail) thoroughly ignore previous set standards, for their own worse set of standards, and are completely mis-educating new users into how e-mail should be written.

If you receive poorly formatted HTML e-mails, which huge signatures that seem to have more emphasis than the content, and big bold titles use that should be using the e-mail subject instead, then you know what I mean.

In fact, everyone’s probably received an e-mail with FYI at the top, and a very long nested list of conversations between two, three or more people for you to read. Why someone would forward me this boggles the mind.


My biggest peeve towards e-mail is how the most popular e-mail clients handle quoting of the original message. The Outlook and Hotmail generation has made everyone think that you should quote the message below your reply, and insert a message header for the quote.

Hey John, Sure, when do you want to meet? Regards, Bob. —–Original Message—– From: John Sent: 19 October 2006 10:02 To: Bob Subject: Lunch Hi Bob, How are you doing? Want to meet for lunch today? Regards, John.

For short, to the point e-mails, this is perfectly fine, although the reply message header (the –Original Message– bit) seems unnecessary and a completely waste of space. We know who the sender and recipient is, the subject is used in the reply subject and the date is almost always irrelevant.

However, if you get a long e-mail, it can sometimes be very confusing to distinguish what the person is replying to.

Hi John, In response to your first point… In response to your second point… In response to your third point… Regards, Bob. —–Original Message—– From: John Sent: 19 October 2006 10:02 To: Bob Subject: Lunch Hi Bob, Long winded point 1. Long winded point 2. Long winded point 3. Regards, John.

The original sender would probably have to refer back to his original quoted message, wasting his time and making him do more work. This is the biggest problem with the quote below style e-mail. It doesn’t make it any easier that the majority of e-mail clients use this format, and changing their settings for the better is not always possible.

The solution, is obvious. Don’t quote unless you’re directly answering a question or point made in the e-mail.

Hi John,

John's first point.

Bob's reply to John's point.

John's second point.

Bob's reply to John's point.

John's third point.

Bob's reply to John's point.

Regards, Bob.

Every response has a clear question, so the reader knows the exact context. The amount of time spent by the writer to paste in a few quotes pales in comparison to when the reader has to trawl through pages of e-mails to find the context to understand the reply.

Rich text and HTML

As you may have noticed, the correct (or better) example I gave for the quotes example was written in plain text rather than either HTML or rich text format. I despise the use of rich text or HTML for textual based e-mails. I want to read e-mail in a font that I choose and in a size that I choose.

I would make exceptions if people wanted to use the formatting styles available to HTML and rich text, but when was the last time you saw someone change the formatting in an e-mail without making you want to cringe. Massive font sizes, glaring colours and animated GIFs isn’t something I want to look at.

People now treat e-mails as mini web pages that you can send. But they forget the fact that the most important part of an e-mail is the content, and that 99.9% of the time plain text is the best way to get this content across to the reader. Flagging as urgent, increase the font size to 20pt and changing the colour to bright pink just doesn’t work.

Again, there are conventions that Outlook and co. dutifully ignore. The only formatting that should be used in an e-mail is emphasis, and traditionally you would wrap the word or phrase with an asterix are you *sure* you want to do that?, and you can plainly see, even without automatic bolding, that the user knows where the emphasis is placed.

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