Email Etiquette


Like most forms of communication, Email has certain seldom written rules which, when followed, make life easier for everyone, but when broken, can lead to misunderstanding and resentment. Following are some guidelines to help you understand the issues involved in sending email and to steer you clear of many common mistakes.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that email is always an imposition on the recipient. Your job when sending a message is to make it as easy as possible for your message to be read. Remember that not everyone is using exactly the same computer with exactly the same programs as you are. Your recipient may be using Windows, MacOS, or Unix, may be reading their email on a desktop, palmtop, or cell phone, and they may have to pay by the byte or by the minute to download their messages.

Use Standard Formating Ask Before Sending Quote Appropriately
Avoid Large Messages Suppress Long Recipient Lists Provide Context
Never Send Executables Suppress Excessive Headers SPAM BAD
Never Email Public Web Pages Use Mailing Lists or Aliases Never Forward Chain Letters
Post Documents Instead of Mailing Confirm List Subscriptions Do Not Forge Headers
Avoid Multimedia Content Avoid Automatic Reply To All Remember...


Use Standard Formating
If you are writing in English, then ALL of your email messages should be sent as plain ASCII or UTF-8 text (not HTML, Windows Text, MS-DOS Text, or ISO-anything text, just ASCII or UTF-8). Remember that recipients who read their email on PDAs, cell-phones, or pagers may not be able to read anything else. Those reading their email over slow connections (such as dial-ups) will also appreciate concise formatting.

Instructions for configuring most mail agents to use text.

If you must send a formatted document, be sure to use an OPEN STANDARD format such as Rich Text Format (RTF) or Portable Document Format (PDF). Formats like DOC, Word, DOS-TEXT, Excel, Power Point (pretty much anything by Microsoft), some forms of TIFF, or anything with "special" characters like accents or "smart quotes", are NOT appropriate because they require the recipient to purchase your particular version of proprietary software to read them. Even if you know the recipient has similar software to yours, differences in version or configuration can still make the attachment unreadable.

NEVER send a document in a non-standard format unless you KNOW that ALL of your recipients are able to read and prefer that format.

Avoid Large Messages
Never send any message larger than about 10 kilobytes (or about 140 lines) unless the recipients have specifically requested it. Even though that may not seem like much, remember that many people use slow telephone modems or wireless connections to read their email. People in Europe or using wireless devices often must pay by the minute or the byte to receive your email. Most people also have limits on the size of their mailbox. Sending a large file could fill up their quota and prevent them from receiving any more mail!

Never Send Executables
NEVER EVER send an application (EXE) unless you KNOW EXACTLY what it is and the person you are sending it to specifically requested it. It could be a Trojan horse, contain a virus, or just plain crash their machine. A program executable is the ultimate security breach and the ultimate non-standard format.

Likewise, you should NEVER open an executable email attachment unless you not only know who sent it, but they have told you in advance (preferably not by email) what to expect. Many "Trojan horses" rely on forged headers to make you think a friend has sent you a program such as a greeting card or a compressed file. If you get an executable you weren't expecting, DELETE it immediately. Virus protection software cannot help you if you run foreign attachments.

Never Email Public Web Pages
If something is on the web, even if it's small, email the URL instead. This not only saves space, but it ensures that the page will be viewed correctly, with all of it's images and links intact.

Post Documents Instead of Mailing
If you have a document that you wish to distribute to many people, consider posting it on your own web page rather than emailing it. This lets each person decide for themselves when and where they wish to view the document and allows you to make changes and updates.

Avoid Multimedia Content
If you MUST send a picture or sound attachment via email use an open standard format such as JPEG for photos, GIF or PNG for icons and scanned text, AIFF for short sound glyphs, MP3 for music, or MPEG for audio/video. QuickTime is also a good catch-all because at least it is cross-platform and can be downloaded for free.

Ask Before Sending
If you have a large document which you think people would be interested in and you can't post it on the web, simply ASK first. Send a description of the document and ask that people who are interested contact you. Be sure to include in your description not just the content of the document, but its format and what applications will be needed to view it.

Suppress Long Recipient Lists
If you are sending a message to a large number of people, have your mailer suppress the recipients list. Those "To:" lines can take up a lot of space and some of your recipients may not appreciate having their email addresses publicized to everyone else. Note that many viruses scan such lists to find new victims.

If you can't figure out how to make your mailer suppress the send list, listing the recipients in the "bcc" field will usually work. Test it first by emailing yourself to make sure your mailer is working correctly.

Suppress Excessive Headers
Some internal mail systems, such as Lotus Notes, insert huge numbers of non-standard headers into their emails. This not only wastes large amounts of time and storage on material that most recipients can't read, but it also breaks some email clients, preventing the messages from being read at all. Either disable these features or use a standards compliant emailer when sending to recipients outside your organization.

Use Mailing Lists or Aliases When Needed
If you want a large group of people to be able to exchange emails as a group (a mailing list), ask your ISP or someone who administers a mail server to set up a REAL list: don't just send a message to everyone and expect them to reply-to-all. In addition to the problems with a long recipient list, it is very unreliable and can result in confused and fragmented conversation threads.

Confirm Mailing List Subscriptions
If you are maintaining a mailing list, do not assume that ANY subscription request is genuine, especially if received via a web page. Your subscription procedure should include sending a confirmation request to the newly subscribed address. Mailing list messages should not be sent until confirmation is received. If confirmation is not received within a certain period of time, the request should be canceled.

Avoid Automatic Reply To All
When replying to a message, MAKE SURE that your mailer does not automatically send your response to every recipient of the original message unless you REALLY want it to. This is especially important if there were a lot of recipients for the original message. Nothing is more infuriating than someone doing a group reply to a 1000 person spam message saying "Don't send me this stuff".

Quote Appropriately
When writing a reply, you should quote only the portion of the original message which is directly relevant to your response: just enough to remind the reader of what they were talking about. Taking a few seconds to delete unnecessary quoted material will save a lot of space and make your message much easier to read. NEVER quote an entire message just to say "Me Too!" Also, configure your mailer to start each quoted line with some kind of citation mark, such as "> ". This also makes reading your message much easier.

Provide Appropriate Context
Just as it is possible to have too much data in your replies, many people put too little in their initial messages. Make sure that your subject line provides a succinct description of what your message is about. It should not exceed about fifty characters and it definitely should not be a partial sentence that continues into the body of the message. If the person you are writing to does not know you well, start off with a one or two sentence introduction of yourself. Most important of all, make sure your message begins by explaining what you are talking about. This should repeat and expand upon the information in your subject line. If you are writing about a web page, be sure to include the URL. Remember that the person you are writing to may be very busy maintaining many web presences, so it's important to tell them up front what you are talking about.

SPAM BAD
NEVER send unsolicited email to large numbers of people (spam). It does not matter if the content is commercial, political, religious, or humorous: it is still spam. Many system administrators (myself included) treat spam as a denial-of-service attack and will take action to have your account and/or your ISP shutdown. Mail servers which send spam are routinely black-listed, so ISPs have become very proactive in shutting down the accounts of spammers, even unintentional ones.

But ISPs canceling your account might be the LEAST of your worries if you send spam. Such attacks are federal felonies which the FBI is beginning to take seriously. In some states, you can be fined up to $500 PER RECIPIENT for sending unsolicited mass mailings. Just don't do it.

Never Forward Chain Letters
Any message which asks you to send copies to other people is a chain letter. Chain letters are regarded almost as badly as spam and most ISPs will cancel your account if you are caught doing this. The message may claim to be in support of some worthy sounding cause, or it may claim to be spreading important news. Just remember that you are responsible for anything you send or pass on so research the issue carefully. See my page on Hoaxes for information on quickly identifying hoaxes. See the CIAC Internet Chain Letters page for some examples of recent chain letter hoaxes.

Do Not Forge Headers
Spammers often falsify their headers to make it difficult to track the origins of their message. Certain types of denial of service attacks also rely on falsified headers to cause unsuspecting recipients to flood an innocent bystander's mailbox with angry replies meant for the attacker. (NEVER reply to spam: even in the unlikely event that your message reaches the actual sender, it will just invite more spam.) Like spamming itself, forging headers is illegal in some states, including Oklahoma where this page is located. Even if your intent is just to perform a joke, forged headers may still be illegal.

And finally,
Remember that not everyone is blessed with an infinite mailbox, cable modem, and universal translators.


Seth B. Noble - Netiquette - Email Etiquette - sbnoble narda.net - Updated February, 2005