What Makes Email Different?
Electronic communication, because of its speed and broadcasting ability,
is fundamentally different from paper-based communication. Because the turnaround
time can be so fast, email is more conversational than traditional paper-based
In a paper document, it is absolutely essential to make everything completely
clear and unambiguous because your audience may not have a chance to ask for
clarification. With email documents, your recipient can ask questions immediately.
Email thus tends, like conversational speech, to be sloppier than communications
This is not always bad. It makes little sense to slave over a message for
hours, making sure that your spelling is faultless, your words eloquent, and
your grammar beyond reproach, if the point of the message is to tell your
co-worker that you are ready to go to lunch.
However, your correspondent also won't have normal status cues such as
dress, diction, or dialect, so may make assumptions based on your name, address,
and - above all - facility with language. You need to be aware of when you
can be sloppy and when you have to be meticulous.
Email also does not convey emotions nearly as well as face-to-face or even
telephone conversations. It lacks vocal inflection, gestures, and a shared
environment. Your correspondent may have difficulty telling if you are serious
or kidding, happy or sad, frustrated or euphoric. Sarcasm is particularly
dangerous to use in email.
Another difference between email and older media is that what the sender
sees when composing a message might not look like what the reader sees. Your
vocal cords make sound waves that are perceived basically the same by both
your ears as your audience's. The paper that you write your love note on is
the same paper that the object of your affection sees. But with email, the
software and hardware that you use for composing, sending, storing, downloading,
and reading may be completely different from what your correspondent uses.
Your message's visual qualities may be quite different by the time it gets
to someone else's screen.
Thus your email compositions should be different from both your paper compositions
and your speech. Hence, this article will show you how to tailor
your message to this new medium.
Using Proper Email Context
In a conversation, there is some minimum of shared context. You might be
in the same physical location, and even on the phone you have, at minimum,
commonality of time. When you generate a document for paper, usually there
is some context embedded in the medium: the text is in the proceedings of
a conference, written on a birthday card, handed to your professor with a
batch of Econ 101 term papers, or something similar.
With email, you can't assume anything about a sender's location,
time, frame of mind, profession, interests, or future value to you. This means,
among other things, that you need to be very, very careful about giving your
receivers some context. This section will give specific strategies for doing
Useful Subject Lines
A subject line that pertains clearly to the email body will help people
mentally shift to the proper context before they read your message. The subject
line should be brief (as many mailers will truncate long subject lines), does
not need to be a complete sentence, and should give a clue to the contents
of the message. For example:
Subject: need projector by Tues
John - I need the projector for Thursday's
demo in New York. They need to be packed and
shipped by Tuesday night.
Here the subject line summarizes nicely the most important details of the
If your message is in response to another piece of email, your email software
will probably preface the subject line with Re: or RE: (for REgarding). If
your email composition software doesn't do this, it would be polite to put
in RE: by hand.
Subject: Re: need projector by Tues
Bill - I've got the projector already packed
from last week's demo, but I don't have the
pointer device right now. Can you
cope without it till you get back?
Make sure not to get too terse with your subject lines in email.
Typing subject lines like "Information", "Help Please", "Urgent", etc. are
not helpful to the recipient of your email and can be quite annoying.
If you are referring to previous email, you should explicitly quote that
document to provide context. Some email programs will do this for you
automatically when choosing to "Reply" to a received email.
Instead of sending email that says:
> Can you cope without it till
> you get back?
The greater-than sign (>) is the most conventional way to quote someone
else's email words, but your email software may use a different convention.
Not quoting someone from a previous email can quickly cause confusion in a
conversation of back-forth email.
A simple a rule of thumb is: Will the other person remember exactly what
I am responding to? If you are uncertain, then always quote the recipient,
when answering or commenting on something he/she had written on some earlier
You may know what you are talking about, but your readers may not. Give
them the proper context by:
- Giving useful subject lines
- Quoting the previous message
Understanding Email Formats
The underlying rules governing email transmission are highly standardized,
but there are a large number of different software programs that can be used
to read email. It's quite possible that the message you send won't look at
all the same when displayed on your correspondent's screen. You therefore
have to be careful about how you present your text. This section will discuss
the problems that may arise from a mismatch between the sending and receiving
software, and show how to avoid them.
Some email reading software only understands plain text. Italics, bold,
and color changes will show up as control sequences in the text. You might
send something like:
Hiya! Hey, I loved the presentation you gave to Jack this morning.
but if your correspondent's software can't handle formatting, the message
could show up as:
Hiya! Hey, I <I>loved<I> the presentation you gave to
Jack this morning. <B>Great Job!<B>
Web documents are particularly difficult to read with older email programs.
You may have a choice of sending the web page as text or as HTML; keep your
correspondent's capabilities in mind when you make that choice.
Some email reading software will recognize URLs (Uniform Resource Locators,
or web addresses) in the text and make them "live." While some software recognizes
URLs from the "www.", most software recognizes URLs by the http:// at the
front. Thus, if there is a URL in your email, it is much safer to include
Some mailers support "attachments", where you can specify a document to
send through email. This allows people to share essentially any file in any
format. GIF-encoded Picture images, Word documents, PDF files, Excel spreadsheets,
and executable files are just a few of the types of documents that can be
sent. File attachments are extremely popular, but have certain
pitfalls to be aware of.
First, AOL users who send or receive file attachments to non-AOL users
(or vice-versa) do not always work well. AOL uses a different encoding
scheme than other email programs. A workaround that always works for
full file attachment compatibility is to compress the file being sent using
a standard PKZIP utility (like WinZip).
A second problem to concern yourself with is file size. Many ISP's
mail servers have a physical file size limit on attachments and will reject
the email if the attachment is too large. This file size varies depending
on the ISP, but you can usually expect attachments larger then 5 Megabytes
to be rejected by most mail servers.
Lastly, avoid sending exe file attachments, especially to businesses, because
most educated recipients will not accept or open this form of file attachment.
An exe file attachment is unfortunately responsible for the spreading of many
computer viruses today, and most businesses and cautious users have altogether
eliminated the opening of these attachments.
If you don't know what email reader your correspondent has, play it safe.
- Don't use formatted text
- Always try to send web pages as text, not HTML
- Type in http:// before your URLs
- Be cautious with attachments
Using Proper Email Intonation and Gesture
The most difficult thing to convey in email is emotion. People frequently
get in trouble for typing exactly what they would say out loud. Unfortunately,
without the tone of voice to signal their emotion, it is easy to misinterpret
Not only does text lack the emotional cues that vocal inflection gives,
text lacks cues from body language. There is no twinkling of the eyes to say
you are kidding, no slapping the back of your hand in your palm to show urgency
or frustration, no shoulders slumping to display discouragement.
While you cannot make hand and facial gestures, or make emphasis by lowering
or raising your voice, there are common techniques used when emailing
someone to convey vocal inflection, emotion, and gestures.
If you want to give something mild emphasis, you should enclose it in asterisks.
This is the moral equivalent of italics in a paper document.
I said that I was going to go last Thursday.
I *said* that I was going to go last Thursday.
I said that I was going to go last *Thursday*.
Which of the above two you choose depends upon whether you are adamant
about the commitment you made or adamant that you didn't mean Wednesday. (Restructuring
the sentence to remove the ambiguity would be an even better idea.)
If you want to indicate stronger emphasis, use all capital letters and
toss in some extra exclamation marks. Instead of:
> Should I just boost the power on the speaker?
No, if you turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat
the amplifier and it might explode.
> Should I just boost the power on the speaker?
NO!!!! If you turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat
the amplifier and IT MIGHT EXPLODE!!
Note that you should use capital letters sparingly. Just as loss of sight
can lead to improved hearing, the relative lack of cues to emotion in email
makes people hyper-sensitive to any cues that might be there. Thus, capital
letters will convey the message that you are shouting.
It is totally inappropriate to use all capital letters in a situation where
you are calm. Don't do this:
HEY, I JUST WANTED TO SEE IF YOU HAD MADE ANY
PROGRESS ON THE WILLIAMS ACCOUNT. STOP
BY AND SEE ME SOMETIME.
People will wince when they read that email.
Smileys or Emoticons
A facial gesture can be represented with what is called a "smiley" or "emoticon":
a textual drawing of a facial expression. The most common ones are:
||:) or :-)
;) or ;-)
>:) or >:-)
:O or :-O
:( or :-(
>:( or >:-(
Note: To understand these symbols, turn your head counter-clockwise and look
at them sideways. You should see little faces.
||Hey, guess what - I got my consulting
||assignment next Thursday! :)
||I'm on my way to fame and fortune now! ;)
There are many more smileys than the one's mentioned. We'll leave
it to you to find more.
Imagine that you ask someone if you can turn the knob up to ten and a half.
Suppose he says, "Well", then pauses for a long time, scratches his head,
looks down at the floor, winces, grits his teeth, and says again, "Well",
then pauses and says, "It might not explode." You'd get a sense of
just how bad an idea it would be, while the text:
Well, it might not explode.
gives less information. Consider using lots of white space and typed-out
vocalizations of "I'm thinking" sounds, as follows:
||Weeeellllll.... errr hem.
||Wellll, it *might* not explode.
It is difficult for most people to express emotion well in a short message.
Fortunately, you can use a number of textual tricks to help convey the emotion:
- Asterisks (for emphasis)
- Capital letters
- White Space
- Lower-case letters
Learning Email Shortcuts
When writing to someone you know is up on email netiquette and standards,
one can really save time by using abbreviations/acronyms for common phrases,
expressions, or emotions used when composing a letter.
AFAIK, Nobody saw me stuffing my face. <LOL>
Interprets to "As far as I know, Nobody saw me stuffing my face. <Laughing
The following is a partial list of common abbreviations used on many chat
sites, newsgroups, and personal email correspondence:
||AFAIK - As Far As I Know
ASAP - As Soon As Possible
BTW - By The Way
FAQ - Frequently Asked Question(s)
FWIW - For What It's Worth
FYI - For Your Information
GDR - Grinning, Ducking and Running
HTH - Hope This Helps
IAC - In Any Case
IANAL - I Am Not A Lawyer
IMHO - In My Humble Opinion
IOW - In Other Words
LOL - Laughing Out Loud
NDA - Non-Disclosure Agreement
OTOH - On The Other Hand
PITA - Pain In The Axiom
QA - Quality Assurance
Q&A - Question & Answer
ROFL - Rolling On the Floor, Laughing
RTFM - Read The Fine Manual
TIA - Thanks In Advance
TS - Tech Support
TTFN - "Ta Ta For Now" (ala Tigger from Winnie the Pooh)
WAD - Works As Designed
WRT - With Respect To