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Email Netiquette 101

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The following article teaches the do's and don'ts when receiving or sending email.  Many users new to email, are completely unaware of the unwritten rules of email etiquette (commonly called netiquette) and some of the popular acronyms and "emoticons" >:) used to quickly convey a message or emotion with electronic mail.

This article is not  about the mechanics of sending email - which buttons to push or how to do a file attachment. Those details are different for every different email software package, and are better handled by manuals for each respective program.  Instead, we will focus on the content of an email message: how to say what you need to say.  This article can be extremely beneficial for email newbies whose inexperience often create wordy letters and take too much company time in conveying a simple message to others.  


What Makes Email Different?
Using Proper Email Context
Understanding Email Formats
Using Proper Email Intonation and Gesture
Learning Email Shortcuts

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 media.

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 on paper.

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 so.

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 message.

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?

Information, Please

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.

Quoting Documents

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 email.


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.

Fancy Text

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. Great Job!

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.

Web Links

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 the http://!


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 their intent.

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.

Light Emphasis

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.

Instead of:

 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.)

Strong Emphasis

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:


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  >:-(
happy, friendly
droll, ironic
devilish, teasing
shocked, bewildered
sad, displeased
Note: To understand these symbols, turn your head counter-clockwise and look at them sideways. You should see little faces.


Typical examples:

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.

Pause Equivalents

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
  • Punctuation
  • White Space
  • Lower-case letters
  • Smileys



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.

Typical example:

 AFAIK, Nobody saw me stuffing my face. <LOL>

Interprets to "As far as I know, Nobody saw me stuffing my face. <Laughing out Loud>".

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


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