I’ve had a couple of new computer trainees recently who have asked about the “right” way of corresponding by email

Victorians being politeI’ve blogged about this before, but never offered a list of all the things I try to include when I’m training on the subject. Apologies to everyone who’s been using email for years, but there may just be something of interest in this list.

  • Don’t shout. Writing everything in capital letters feels to the recipient as if they are being shouted at (unless, of course, you intend to give that impression).
  • Don’t reveal recipients’ email addresses to each other, unless they already know each other. Click here for a detailed article on using CCC and BCC fields in email.
  • Be very careful of using light-coloured fonts. Not all screens display colours the same. What may be legible on your own screen may be difficult to read on another. Someone sent me an email in bright yellow recently and I had to forward it to myself (with the font colour changed, of course) before I could read it.
  • An email "@" signBe very careful of using weird fonts. What may strike you as an expression of your lovable, wacky individuality might just come across as an un-necessary irritant to your correspondent.
  • Avoid text message-style abbreviations and emoticons unless you know they will be well received and well understood. “LOL, BTW, IMTOU, b4, etc” can be very tiresome to people who don’t use them and don’t know what they mean.
  • Spelling, grammar and punctuation are important. It’s easy to mis-understand the precise meaning of emails and it can be embarrassing and time-consuming replying to an email by asking for clarification.
  • An email "@" signRemember that you can “copy and paste” standard paragraphs that you often need and can even create entire template emails. If you find, for instance, that you are often emailing people with travelling directions of how to find you, then it’s probably worth creating one good set of instructions and then filing it somewhere where you can easily find it to re-use it.
  • Be patient. A lot of people are more-or-less constantly connected to their email and will respond within an hour or so. There are other people who only check their email every day or two, and there’s no law that says your email has got to be answered quickly. I find that if I want a quick response from an “occasional” email user then it helps to send a quick text message saying I’ve just emailed them.
  • Do be mindful of legal consequences. It’s a good idea to think of emails as analogous to postcards rather than sealed letters.
  • An email "@" signDon’t send large attachments unless they are necessary. Some email systems can’t handle attachments larger than 5mb. Click here for more on the subject of large email attachments.
  • Don’t tick the box that requests a “read receipt” unless you really need one.
  • Don’t mark your message as “high priority” unless it really is. I used to have a correspondent who marked every single email as “high priority” and requesting a “read receipt”. Words like “boy”, “cry”, and “wolf” come to mind.
  • An email "@" signDon’t reply to an email by starting a new email. Always, always, “reply” to the email. This ensures that the history of the conversation (known as the “thread”) is available to both parties without hunting through other emails. I have had trainees who thought that it is somehow “wasteful” to include the previous message(s) as it has already been sent at least once. In principle, I suppose that it is, but the inefficiency is almost unmeasurable (and completely incomparable with the waste of time (and temper) caused by having to hunt through other emails to see the history and context of the current message).
  • Victorian danceDon’t use the “reply to all” option unless you really do want all of the people in the “conversation” to receive a copy of your message. One of the things that people dislike most about email is the number of messages they receive just because they have been “copied in”. They don’t know how much attention to give to the message and often feel that they must waste their time reading something just on the off-chance there’s something relevant to them.
  • Do include a subject line. I have always thought that it is a matter of courtesy, as well as administrative efficiency, to give an email a meaningful subject – and I don’t think that “Hi there” cuts the mustard!

You may also be interested in this previous article that referred to email netiquette.

Dropbox Re-visited

Dropbox logoA while ago I wrote favourably about Dropbox and the way that it copies files of your choosing to one or more other computers automatically. I am still using it all the time to ensure that I have the latest versions of important files with me on my netbook when I am visiting clients. There are two things that I would like to add:

  • There have been concerns that Dropbox is not as private as we might like. Their previous privacy policy suggested that employees of Dropbox were not able to view files stored using Dropbox (the files are stored on Dropbox’s servers as well as distributed among your own computers). It now appears that that is not the case and that they would reveal our data to relevant authorities (in the USA) if subpoenaed to do so. Moreover, since Dropbox do have the ability to view files it means that customers’ files are vulnerable to mistakes or malpractices of its own employees. See here for a good exposition of the situation. Like the writer of that blog, I am considering leaving Dropbox, but am reluctant to do so as I have come to rely on its usefulness.
  • I recently password-protected an (existing) Excel 2010 spreadsheet and then promptly forgot what password I had used. Although I definitely had unprotected backups, they were not current. Then I remembered that Dropbox keeps previous versions of files. By logging on to my Dropbox account I was very easily able to restore an unprotected version of the spreadsheet from just before the time I locked myself out of it. Magic! That’s another reason I won’t drop Dropbox easily.

Email Netiquette Re-visited

Some aspects of what is considered polite and proper in emailing are important – such as not revealing email addresses in the “CC field” when the recipients do not know each other (see Shouty Emails and Email Address Fields for my previous posts on this). Others are less so. I was recently amused by an article on the BBC website about how we greet each other and sign off our emails. Reading through the mountain of comments that the article attracted, I concluded that there is no universal way of either starting or ending emails that will not offend or upset someone. It seems that every single variation has its supporters and detractors.

For instance, some people say it is only common politeness to start an email with “Dear Fred” (assuming, of course, that it is Fred you are emailing). Others say that that is an archaic and irrelevant hangover from letter-writing, and someone else even thought that that form suggested an intimacy that may be inappropriate. Likewise with ending emails: some people like to sign off with “Cheers”, whereas others (including me) loathe that word in that context.

I have concluded that there is no generally accepted manner of either opening or closing emails, so I will carry on as I have always done – which is to adjust my wording slightly depending on the situation and to stick with forms that do not make me squirm with embarrassment if I see them again two weeks later.

……. and, finally

If you would like to re-visit any of my newsletters/blog posts (they are the same thing, the newsletter being the emailed version of new blog posts), the easiest way to find what you are looking for is to look at the sitemap on my website. Just scroll down the page to the “Posts” section, where the links are listed with the title and publication date (in chronological order).

The normal place to enter the email address of the recipient of your emails is the “To:” field (a “field” in computer terms is an area in which data is stored). You can send the same message to several people by entering all their email addresses here (separated by commas or semi-colons). Every person receives the message and every person sees the email address of all the other recipients.

Email address fields

So what is the CC field?

This stands for “carbon copy” and goes back to the days of typewriters and carbon paper. Someone who is “cc’d in” receives a copy for their information. All addresses entered in the CC field are also visible to all recipients of the email.

And what is the BCC field?

This stands for “blind carbon copy”. Other recipients are not aware that someone else has received a “blind copy”.

But I can’t see a BCC field!

Different email programs are set up differently and a lot of them do not display the “BCC” field by default. If you can’t find how to display it in your own email program tell me what email program you are using and I will see if I can help.

But why use the CC and BCC fields?

Well, the difference between the “To” and “CC” fields is that the “CC” recipient is just being informed (or, as they say tirelessly these days, “kept in the loop”). They are not expected to respond in the same way as the main recipient. This is actually causing big problems in a lot of organisations where people send “CC’s” to all and sundry so that they can say they kept the other person informed. Consequently, people are being bombarded with emails that they have to read in case there’s anything they actually need to know.

The first use of the BCC field is fairly obvious – you can send someone a copy without anyone else knowing.

However, there is a much more important use for the BCC field. Suppose you want to send the same email to, say, 30 people who do not know each other. If you put all their email addresses in the “To” field or the “CC” field then they will all see each others’ email addresses. This is fine if everyone on the list already knows everyone else, but it’s a very bad idea otherwise. To begin with, it’s bad “netiquette”. By displaying someone’s email address to other people you are opening up the possibility of that email address being abused (by spammers, for example). Would you give out someone’s phone number to other people without permission to do so? I have also heard that it is possibly a contravention of data protection legislation to be cavalier with email addresses in this way. I’ve no idea whether that’s true or just an urban myth, but I’m sure you get the point.

So, if you wish to send an email to lots of people without revealing their addresses to each other you put them into the BCC field. If you do this you must still put an address in the “To” field and the easiest thing to do is to put your own address here. You could also create a contact in your email contacts/address book that consists of your own email address with the “display as” information set to “undisclosed recipients”. You then use this as the recipient in the “To” field.

While we’re on the subject of netiquette, there are a couple of options in most email programs that are useful if used sparingly, but which drive me (and others) nuts when overused:

  • prioritising emails – by all means put a “high priority” tag on emails that require a high priority response, but don’t put one on every email. I’m sure I’m not the only person childish enough to treat these “me, me, me” emails with a slower than average response.
  • requesting a “read receipt” for every email. As a matter of bloody-minded principle, I refuse to send “read receipts” to people who request them on every email they send me. Anyway, I think I’m intelligent and mature enough to be able to work out for myself when it is appropriate to acknowledge receipt of an email.

Grumpy? Moi?

Ok, I don’t deny that I can be a bit pedantic at times (the rogue apostrophe, for example), but shouty emails irritate lots of other people as well as me, and even seem to have got at least one person the sack – see this item in The Telegraph, for instance.

What’s a shouty Email?



Email is much less formal than, for instance, writing letters. Nevertheless, you don’t have to be as pedantic as me to be put off by emails that irritate, confuse or upset the recipient by the way in which they are written. There are some “rules” (or, shall we say, “guidelines”) that have grown up around this subject and they go under the name of “netiquette”.

And it’s not just a case of violating netiquette. Spam filters treat manic capitalisation and punctuation as indicators of spam so, ironically, your efforts to really get your point across by SHOUTING could undermine the chances of the message even being delivered.

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Computer Support in London
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