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Electronic Mail Etiquette

Some musings by David Harris.
(The Author of Pegasus Mail)


This document presents some simple guidelines for electronic mail
etiquette. It does not try to mandate any particular style or rules: it
is instead an attempt to highlight important issues which affect the
clarity of the electronic mail we send. After all, electronic mail is
about communication, so clarity should be our goal.

I welcome comments or feedback about this document - I can be mailed as
David.Harris@pmail.gen.nz.

This list is in no particular order.


Addresses and personal names

A "Personal name" is an arbitrary string that many mailers will allow you
to define, which is attached to your e-mail 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.

Example:
The address '344188@foo.chaos.com' conveys less information
than if it were written as '344188@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
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, then 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 emphasize
a point heavily). 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 and misspelt messages are hard to read
and potentially confusing. Just because electronic mail is fast does
not mean that it should be slipshod, yet the worst language-mashing I
have ever seen has been done in e-mail 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, besides which a cup of good coffee is a great soother).

* 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.


Replies

* Include enough of the original message to provide a context. Remember
that Electronic Mail 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 e-mail is to have your
original 5-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 which 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 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 which might
offend people on the grounds of religion, race, politics or
sexuality.

- Try to 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 e-mail.

* Don't expect an immediate answer. Just because you don't get an
answer from someone in ten minutes does not mean that he or she is
ignoring you, and is no cause for offence. 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 mail system.
It is unwise to send very personal or sensitive information by e-mail
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 "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.


"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
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 of others, some more recognizable than others.

Using the common smiley faces carefully can markedly improve the clarity
of your message, since they convey nuances which 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. When you compose an e-mail message, read it over before
sending it and ask yourself what your reaction would be if you received
it. Any time spent on making our e-mail clearer is time well-spent, so
let's start taking the time.

-- David Harris --



Converting the "etiquet.txt" file to a HTML file was done by Conny (CoMa) Magnusson.


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