E-Mail Etiquette: Do's, Don'ts and Disaster Tales from People Magazine's Internet Manners Expert

E-Mail Etiquette: Do's, Don'ts and Disaster Tales from People Magazine's Internet Manners Expert

by Samantha Miller

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Miss Manners for the Internet Age, "People" magazine's Samantha Miller delivers a highly original and valuable guide to smart and productive email usage.


Miss Manners for the Internet Age, "People" magazine's Samantha Miller delivers a highly original and valuable guide to smart and productive email usage.

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E-Mail Etiquette

By Samantha Miller

Warner Books

Copyright © 2001 Samantha Miller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-446-67804-X

Chapter One

E-Mail Etiquette: Basic Training

What kinds of subject lines are best?

How should I sign an e-mail message?

What's so bad about typing e-mail in all capital letters?

You have before you a new e-mail message. Your mission: Address it properly. Enter a useful, descriptive subject line. And craft a message that's courteous and easy to read.

What could be so hard about that? Just take a look at your in-box. Busy e-mailers often ignore common courtesies like proper spelling; beginning e-mailers often aren't familiar with some of the basic rules of the road. Then there are tips and tricks few e-mailers think about-until they get fed up with other users' bad habits.

In this chapter, we'll tackle the basics of crafting an e-mail message, from "To" to "Ta-ta for now."

An e-mail message has two sections: a header, where the addresses and subject information appear, and the body, where you type your message.

The address lines of an e-mail message:

To: Where you put the e-mail address(es) of the main person or people for whom the message is intended. cc: Where you put the e-mail address(es) of people who should receive copies of the message. (Future Who Wants to Be a Millionaire stumper for Generation Y: What does "cc" stand for? Answer: carbon copy. Ask your parents.)

bcc: Where you put the e-mail address of people who should receive "blind carbon copies" of the message: They get copies, but the "To" and "cc" recipients don't see the "bcc" recipients' addresses listed. "Bcc" recipients don't see one another's addresses, either. Handy in some situations (such as sending a mass mailing to a long list of recipients); a potential e-mail etiquette disaster in others (such as sending a secret copy of a message behind the main recipient's back). "Mass Mailing minus the Mess."


When it comes to avoiding embarrassing e-mail situations, the most important rule is probably the most obvious one: Use the right address. Never guess at a recipient's e-mail address-a change of just one letter could spell disaster. Be very careful if you're selecting recipients from a list of names in an address book or if your e-mail program automatically fills in a recipient's address once you've entered the first few letters. Always double-check the address before you send the message. And triple-check for errors when you add someone's name and address to your e-mail address book.

Embarrassing E-Moment

"In her e-mail address book, one of my female friends (I'm a guy) accidentally assigned my e-mail address to the nickname of one of her girlfriends and the girlfriend's e-mail address to my nickname. I started getting copies of all this girl talk she and her female friends would exchange after the weekend. After a few weeks I had to write her and say, 'Sorry, this is Sean, not Christine.'"


You can enter pretty much anything as the subject of your e-mail-but this is worth putting some thought into. Why? When your message lands in your recipient's in-box, he has only your name and the subject to consider when he decides when (and whether) to open it-and even more importantly, that's usually all he has to go on when, days and dozens of e-mails later, he's trying to find your message again in his cluttered in-box.

Some Subject Do's and Don'ts

DO: Use a subject. Forgetting to enter a subject seems to be a plague among e-mail novices and ultra-busy executives. Either way, they should know better. (If you're responding to an e-mail with a blank subject, go ahead and fill one in.)

DO: Keep it short. A complete sentence will betray you as an e-mail beginner, and many e-mail programs cut off a subject after forty characters or so. A few words, or one well-selected one, are best.

DON'T: Start your subject with "Re:". Most e-mail programs automatically insert "Re:" when you respond to a message, so e-mailers think of it as meaning "Reply," not "Regarding." If you put in your own "Re:", your recipient won't know whether this is a new message or a response to one of his. And if he replies, you'll wind up with an unsightly "Re: Re:".

DO: Keep it specific. "Barbecue on Sunday" is better than "party." As for idle e-chatter with friends, "Hi" and "What's up?" are popular subjects for those in a hurry, but taking the time to come up with something creative or humorous will ensure that your pal opens up the message with a smile. Plus, some sneaky junk e-mailers use vague subjects like "Hi" to fool recipients into opening their messages.

DON'T: Use wacky punctuation. Don't use all capital letters, multiple exclamation points, or asterisks to make your subject stand out. It will look like one of those **GET RICH QUICK!!!** junk e-mails- or just be irritatingly hard to read. Whether to capitalize individual words is up to you-you can capitalize in the style of a book title ("Meeting with Consultants") or go lowercase ("meeting with consultants").

DO: Make your subject meaningful to you and your recipient. If the message spawns a back-and-forth conversation, both of you want to be able to identify it easily. In my job as a writer at People, I get scads of e-mail messages from would-be story subjects, sources, or publicists with a subject like "Story for People." Of course the message is about a story for People, and so are the ninety-eight other messages I got today-making it extremely unlikely I'll be able to find that message in my in-box if I need to refer to it again. Another popular subject that's even worse: the utterly meaningless "For Samantha Miller." Try something more specific.

DO: Change the subject when it needs changing. (Just like underwear!)

When I'm sending e-mail back and forth with one person, how often should I change the subject line?

Well, if you and your steady are discussing which wedding caterer to hire and the subject still reads "Re: Nice Meeting You," it's time to freshen it up. But using a new heading on every note can get confusing. So switch when the rest of the message no longer has anything to do with the subject-just say non to non sequiturs.

Someone using the same subject more than, say, twice. Because if you save your messages and you're looking for a particular one and they all have the subject "Re: Hi," you've got to look through every one of them. And subjects that are pointless, like typing three periods, are just plain dumb. Use some imagination, folks.


If you're not still trying to think up a hilarious subject line (if you've been racking your brain for more than five minutes you have permission to go ahead and use "Hi"), the next e-mail etiquette challenge is how to start off the message itself.

To greet or not to greet? Many longtime Net users eschew greetings in e-mail, preferring to launch into their message without any ado. It's clean, neat, and stylishly minimalist-and, like a little black dress, it's appropriate for almost every occasion. Consider converting to this camp-it sure makes life easier. However, greetings can help start things off on a friendlier- or a more formal-note. Let's start with the office situation.

What's the proper salutation for business e-mail? In today's khaki-clad office scene, we're almost all on a first-name basis, so inter-cubicle missives can start with a cheery "Hi, Bob!", "Bob:", or nothing at all. The same goes for outside contacts you're already acquainted with, unless you're a peon and they're big cheeses ("Dear Mr. Gates:"). Don't know your recipient? Stick with "Mr." or "Ms." Traditionalists won't bristle, and whippersnappers will be tickled.

E-mail is less formal than a snail-mail business letter-and it's automatically stamped with a date and return address-so there's no need for inside addresses, the date, or any of that other stuff your high-school English teacher taught you must top a business letter. However, standard business-letter etiquette does apply to the greeting itself, if you're introducing yourself to someone or have another reason to be formal. Use titles where appropriate and a colon at the end:

Dear Mr. Jones: Dear Ms. Jones: Dear Dr. Jones: Dear Rev. Jones: Dear Senator Jones: Dear Mr. President:

If you subsequently reach a first-name basis with the recipient, you can begin with "Dear Susan:" or "Susan:". (Please don't try this for heads of state.)

What if you're e-mailing a group of people, or a person whose identity you don't know, such as a customer-service representative for a shopping Web site? The simplest solution is to join the minimalist team and skip a greeting. If you're a die-hard traditionalist, for groups you may use "Ladies and Gentlemen:" or describe the recipients: "Dear Professors:" or "Dear Acme employees:".

For mystery individuals, you may opt for the ultra-formal "Dear Sir or Madam," the tried-and-true "To whom it may concern," or a title such as "Dear Webmaster." Less formal, but admirably all-purpose: "Greetings," "Good day," or even "Hello."

DO: If this is the first time you're e-mailing someone, once you've deployed the formal greeting use a few sentences of the message to introduce yourself. Indicate your name, your company, your job title, and a few pertinent details about who you are or why you're writing (i.e., "I enjoyed meeting you at the trade show last week" or "I'm a resident of your congressional district and I have a pothole on my block that could swallow a Humvee.").

DON'T: Be too informal when e-mailing a business contact you don't know. Plenty of e-mailers (perhaps even a majority) use first names in this situation, and plenty of recipients see nothing wrong with it, but you never know when someone will take offense. Plus, starting things off with a respectful, businesslike tone can't hurt your interests. And for Pete's-or, rather, Peter's-sake, don't use a nickname for your recipient unless he or she has invited you to do so.

When you're sending e-mail to friends, the rules loosen up considerably. Whether to use a greeting, and what greeting to use, is a matter of your own personal style. There's the time-tested ("Dear Mom"), enthusiastic ("Hi there!"), literary ("Greetings and salutations," as Charlotte of Charlotte's Web preferred), cinematic ("Yo, Adrian!" as Rocky might have e-mailed), and myriad more options.

DO: If you're e-mailing your significant other, a quick "My darling" or "Pookie" might help set a romantic mood-assuming Pookie isn't the cat's name.


E-mail isn't as formal as a letter. Nor is it as casual or fleeting as a phone call. The exact format and tone of your message, of course, depend somewhat on the situation-a message to your boss will look different from one to your main squeeze. (If the boss is your main squeeze, better get separate accounts for your personal and professional e-mail to keep those memos and mash notes separate.)

Some basic rules, however, almost always apply:

DO: Keep the basic format clean and easy to read. Break for paragraphs frequently (think of a newspaper article) and double-space between them. Don't use tabs or spaces to indent each paragraph-keep them flush to the left. Tabs frequently get garbled by recipients' e-mail programs, and blocks of text, flush with the left-hand margin, look cleaner anyway.

DON'T: Double-space after a period. This went out with the typewriter.

DO: Keep business e-mails short-or as short as possible, anyway. If one sentence accomplishes the mission, there's no need to pad with small talk.

Among friends, anything goes-as long as everyone's happy. Some people like to craft lengthy dispatches, others one-line zingers. If you're a haiku type who's pals with an epic poet, find a happy medium, or learn to live with each other.

Long e-mails. Living in Silicon Valley, you get used to being very concise. People outside of Silicon Valley take twice as much room to say half as much. If I see more than two paragraphs, I stop reading and save it for later.

I have a friend I keep in touch with online. I have so much to say. Is it okay to write a very long e-mail?

Your friend ought to be delighted. If you're worried about sending her on a guilt trip, add a P.S. assuring her you don't require an epic-length reply.

DO: Spell-check. Or better yet, learn to spell-it's never too late. Atrocious spelling seems to have become a perverse point of pride among some ultra-busy types-it shows they're busy VIPs, you see-but many fed-up e-mailers single it out as one of their primary Net peeves. A typo here and there is no sin, but heedless sloppiness will make your message difficult to read, while your lack of common courtesy will come through loud and clear. Be extra careful with common mistakes the spell-checker won't catch, like "its" versus "it's" and "affect" versus "effect," or risk losing esteem in the eyes of a recipient who-bless him or her-cares about literacy.

Is it okay to send e-mail full of spelling errors?

look over emale before u sned it. its only commn curtesy. How annoying was that to read? Very-which is why the "I'm so busy I can't take time to spell-check" attitude has got to go. It's rude to recipients. They're busy too.

DO: Feel free to use common abbreviations or acronyms-if you're sure your recipient will understand them. Common Net acronyms like BTW (by the way), IHMO (in my humble opinion), and ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing) can indubitably be useful, and most professions evolve their own patois of abbreviations and TLAs (three-letter acronyms). Such shorthand is perfectly polite in informal e-mail-as long as you know recipients speak the lingo too. Using lingo to show off in front of a Net newbie or someone out-side your field is rude-and so is making fun of anyone for not understanding it. For a Net-lingo guide, see Appendix A.

When I play online games, people send me chat messages like "a/s/l" or "gg." I don't know what they mean. What should I do?

Abbreviations and acronyms are part of the fun of the Net. Next time you're befuddled, just ask the person you're chatting with-it's not impolite of your fellow players to use lingo, but it would be very rude for them not to let a newcomer in on the code. (By the way, "a/s/l" means "age, sex, location" and "gg" means "good game" or "gotta go.") Shy? Try a Net-slang dictionary such as netlingo.com.

DON'T: Use all capital letters for the body of the message!

Why is it bad to type in all capital letters? What about all small letters?

Net tradition dictates that all caps denotes shouting: PIPE DOWN! As for the e. e. cummings mode, it's fine for speed in chat rooms, but ease up on the accelerator for e-mail.

Internet newcomers sometimes gripe about the all-caps-equals-shouting rule, but it's one of the Net's longest-standing traditions.


Excerpted from E-Mail Etiquette by Samantha Miller Copyright © 2001 by Samantha Miller. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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