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TECH TIPS
with Scott Merrill

Learn tips and hints to use a variety of electronic and technical equipment to enhance work with volunteers.

~ July 2005 ~ Topics


Email Etiquette

If you're reading this, chances are you use email. You might use it a lot, or only a little; but when you deal with email you're almost certainly sending messages to, and receiving messages from, poeple who use email all day every day. Certain best practices have evolved in the four decades of electronic mail, and as the voluntary sector begins to interface more with the technology sector, it's becoming more and more important for non-technical people to understand basic email etiquette.

The following five guidelines will help you use email more effectively. It will also help you communicate with die-hard technologists, who sometimes communicate almost exclusively by email.

No Context

One of the things that infuriates me the most is when someone replies to a message I sent them, and they remove all of my original message. What's worse is that the reply is usually a short "Okay, see you then!" message.

I don't get upset because I'm an ego-maniac who desperately wants to see my name and thoughts in the reply. I get upset because I have forgotten what it was I wrote to you, and I now have no idea when you're expecting to meet me, or why we're meeting at all! I receive well over a hundred email messages per day, and I compose at least a third of that number in return. I don't try to remember the contents of every email I send. I expect the recipients of my email messages to include a relevant portion of my original message when they reply.

All email programs, by default quote, or include a copy of, the original message. This is an important default: it provides the recipient(s) with context about the original email. This is doubly important when you CC or BCC new recipients, who may not have read the original message: your reply may be meaningless without context.

Excessive Quoting

The opposite of not including context in your reply is to include too much context. If this article were an email that I sent to you, and you wanted to share with me an observation about just this section, it would be excessive of you to include the entire contents of my original message in your reply. Instead, delete the parts to which you are not replying, and leave the bit that's relevant to your reply.

Here's what a correctly quoted reply might look like:

Scott Merrill wrote:
> I don't get upset because I'm an ego-maniac who desperately wants to see
> my name and thoughts in the reply.  I get upset because I have forgotten
> what it was I wrote to you, and I now have no idea when you're expecting
> to meet me, or why we're meeting at all!  I receive well over a hundred

Yes, this infuriates me, too!

> original message in your reply.  Instead, delete the parts to which you
> are not replying, and leave the bit that's relevant to your reply.

Just like this!

Successful quoting is like the communication technique called paraphrase. You pick out the key words or parts of what a person is saying to you and repeat them back. In a face to face conversation, using paraphrase I would say: "I understood you to say that I should delete all but the pertinent parts of what you wrote." Then you can indicate to me if I heard you correctly. Deleting all but the key parts of the message is sort of like a written form of paraphrase.

Top Posting

Top-posting is the practice of placing your reply at the top of an email, above the quoted context of the original message. Top-posting is bad because it breaks the continuity of a conversation, and can make your reply appear out of context (or at least make the context difficult to discern). Top-posting also makes it difficult for anyone you CC or BCC on your reply, because they must read your reply, then read the original message.

An old internet joke:

A:  because it messes up threading
Q:  why would I not reply by top-posting? 

This joke succinctly illustrates the problems with top-posting: you see the answer before you see the question.

Here's an example of a correctly formed reply, with the contents of the rely underneath the quoted original:


Scott Merrill wrote:
> Top-posting is the practice of placing your reply at the top
> of an email, above the quoted context of the original message.
> Top-posting is bad because it breaks the continuity of a
> conversation, and can make your reply appear out of context (or at
> least make the context difficult to discern). Top-posting also makes
> it difficult for anyone you CC or BCC on your reply, because they
> must read your reply, then read the original message.

I agree with you that top-posting makes it extremely awkward to read a long email thread.

To fully understand why top-posting is bad, consider how things look in a deeply-nested selection of top-posting, as might result from a busy email conversation back and forth:

Okay, now I get it.

Scott Merrill wrote:
> But top-posting makes it hard to follow who said what!
>
> John Q. Public wrote:
>> I'm not so sure I agree with this. I top-post all the time, and no
>> one complains...
>>
>>Scott Merrill wrote:
>>>Top-posting is the practice of placing your reply at the top
>>>of an email, above the quoted context of the original message.
>>>Top-posting is bad because it breaks the continuity of a
>>>conversation, and can make your reply appear out of context (or at
>>>least make the context difficult to discern). Top-posting also makes
>>>it difficult for anyone you CC or BCC on your reply, because they
>>>must read your reply, then read the original message.
>>

Now imagine that you were carbon-copied on the last message in this email conversation. It would take no small amount of time to read and filter all the top-posted replies in order for you to understand what the original message was, and who said what in response.

Unfortunately, most email programs are configured to start all replies by top-posting. Some email programs have an option to override this behavior, but most do not. Top-posting is not a hard habit to break though, especially once you start replying with context: simply delete the parts to which you're not replying and place the contents of your reply underneath the remaining bits.

Reply All

Most email programs have both a Reply and a Reply All button. Reply All can be very useful, to be sure, but it can also be abused. Before you click the Reply All button, think carefully whether all the people who will receieve your message will really care about it.

Too often, people Reply All simply because they were included on a Reply All reply. All it takes is one person to Reply All, saying "Why'd I get this?". The only person to whom that question should be directed is the person who actually sent the message! By including everyone with Reply All, the questioner has actually compounded the problem!

Please do not Reply All unless you know that each recipient of the original message really needs to receive your reply.

Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are wondeful. I subscribe to, and participate on, over a dozen mailing lists. Each list has its own "flavor" for participation, and several have specific rules regarding conduct. On some mailing lists, some of the actions described above (no context, over-quoting, top-posting) will result in a stream of (not always) polite reminders as to proper procedure. It is the responsibility of each mailing list member to understand, and abide by, any stated rules for posting.

Beyond that, though, there's one other "gotcha" of which to be aware with mailing lists. Some mailing list software delivers each message with the Reply-To field set to the address of the person who wrote the message, so that clicking Reply will address your response directly to the orginal poster. Other mailing list software delivers each message with the Reply-To field set to the list address, so that clicking Reply will address your reply directly to the list. This is called munging the Reply-To address.

You need to pay attention to whether your mailing list munges or not. If it does not munge, then clicking Reply will send your message only to the original poster. If you want to send your reply to the list you will need to manually replace that person's email address with the address of the mailing list.

If your mailing list does munge, then clicking Reply will send your reply to the entire list. If you want to send an off-list reply only to the original poster you will need to remember to replace the mailing list address with the original poster's email address.

Please do not include both the original poster's email address and the mailing list address in your replies: this causes the original poster to receive two copies of your reply! If you want to share your reply with both the original poster and the list, simply send your reply to the list.

One final suggestion regarding mailing lists: most mailing list software automatically includes a small (sometimes huge) text footer, with information about the list. It might look something like this:

_______________________________________________
neato mailing list
neato@example.com
http://example.com/listinfo/neato

This information should always be removed from your replies.

Conclusion

As the voluntary sector begins to interface more and more with the technology sector, and as volunteer programs use email for a greater portion of their daily communication, it is important to understand how to make the best use of the tools available. Most folks don't have an "Email Manual," describing how to make the most of their electronic mail. Hopefully the suggestions above will help you save time, and better communicate.


Scott Merrill is an information technology professional with demonstrated success in a variety of diverse environments, including healthcare, for-profit, and non-profit. He has participated in large-scale deployments for national and international corporations, and has successfully managed the introduction of a complete technology solution for a mid-sized nonprofit mental health facility. Scott lives in lovely Columbus, Ohio with his wife and twin daughters. He occasionally blogs his thoughts at http://skippy.net. You may reach him by email at skippy@skippy.net.

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