Electronic Mail Etiquette
Back in 1993,
I published a set of etiquette guidelines for electronic
mail, which became a standard part of the Pegasus Mail help
file: in the sixteen years since I originally wrote them,
I have continually kept them up to date, and have received
innumerable questions and requests on the subject. The guidelines
themselves are shown below, provided as a public service:
for information on republishing or using these guidelines,
please click here.
Guidelines for Electronic Mail
This document presents some simple guidelines for electronic
mail etiquette and usage. It does not try to mandate any
particular style or rules, but is rather an attempt to highlight
important issues affecting the clarity of the electronic
mail we send - and after all, electronic mail is about communication,
so clarity should be our goal.
Addresses and personal names
A personal name is an arbitrary string of text that
many mailers will allow you to define, and will attach to
your e-mail address as a textual comment: in Pegasus Mail,
you define your personal name in the General Preferences
dialog... So, in the example address "David Harris
<firstname.lastname@example.org>", the personal name part
is "David Harris".
- Always provide a personal name if your mail system
allows it - a personal name attached to your address
identifies you better than your address can on its own.
- Use a sensible personal name: "Guess who"
or other such phrases are annoying as personal names
and hinder the recipient's quick identification of you
and your message. Most mail programs will show only
your personal name (not your e-mail address) in recipients'
folder lists, so using a sensible name is essential
in allowing them to identify you as the sender.
- If your mail system lets you use personal names
in the addresses to which you send mail, try
to use them. This will often help a postmaster recognize
the real recipient of the message if the address is
Example: The address email@example.com
conveys less information on its own than
if it were written as firstname.lastname@example.org
- Always include a subject line in your message. Almost
all mailers present you with the subject line when you
browse your mailbox, and it's often the only clue the
recipient has about the contents when filing and searching
- Make the subject line meaningful. For example, sending
a message to Microsoft Technical Support with the subject
"Windows" is practically as unhelpful
as having no subject at all.
- If you are replying to a message but are changing
the subject of the conversation, change the subject
too - or better still, start a new message altogether.
The subject is usually the easiest way to follow the
thread of a conversation, so changing the conversation
without changing the subject can be confusing and can
make filing difficult.
Message Length, Content and Format
- Try to match your message length to the tenor of
the conversation: if you are only making a quick query,
then keep it short and to the point.
- It has become increasingly common for people to
try to cram their entire message into the "subject"
line, but you shouldn't do this - it is visually confusing
to open a message and see nothing in the body: many
people will mistake such messages for botched delivery
attempts and will delete them without necessarily noticing
the subject. Make your subject descriptive, by all means,
but ensure that the message body also contains meaningful
- In general, keep to the subject as much as possible.
If you need to branch off onto a totally new and different
topic then it's often better to send a new message,
which allows the recipient the option of filing it separately.
- Don't type your message in ALL-UPPERCASE - it's
the Internet equivalent of yelling, and can be extremely
difficult to read (although a short stretch of uppercase
may serve to emphasize a point heavily).
- Try to break your message into logical paragraphs
and restrict your sentences to sensible lengths.
- Use correct grammar and spelling. Electronic
mail is all about communication - poorly-worded and
misspelled messages are hard to read and potentially
confusing. Just because electronic mail is fast does
not mean that it should be slipshod, yet the worst language-mashing
I have ever seen has been done in e-mail messages. If
your words are important enough to write, then surely
they are also important enough to write properly?
- "TXT-speak"... f u wnt 2 talk lk ths 2
yr frnds, well OK, but make sure they understand you.
Also, be aware that not everyone thinks that txt-speak
(or its cousin, "l33t-speak") is "cool"
- if you send a message like this to such a person,
you may end up looking ridiculous, which could be disastrous.
Avoid using this type of language when mailing people
you don't know, or in business correspondence. Finally,
make sure you agree on what your abbreviations mean
- "LOL", for instance, means "Laughing
out Loud" to some people, but "Lots of Love"
- Avoid public "flames" - messages sent
in anger. Messages sent in the heat of the moment generally
only exacerbate the situation, achieve little, and are usually regretted
later. Settle down and think about it for a while before
starting a flame war. (Try going and making yourself
a cup of coffee - it's amazing how much you can cool
down even in that short a time, besides which a good
of coffee is a great soother).
- If your mail program supports fancy formatting (bold,
italic and so on) in the mail messages it generates,
make sure that the recipient has a mail program that
can display such messages. At the time of writing, there
are still some
Internet mail programs that do not support anything
other than plain text in messages, although this will
change over time.
- Be very careful about including credit card numbers
in electronic mail messages. Electronic mail can be
intercepted in transit and a valid credit card number
is like money in the bank for someone unscrupulous enough
to use it.
- Avoid using "group reply" (reply-to-all)
functions whenever possible: the vast majority of messages
that receive group replies each day do not warrant them.
Abuse of this function generates an enormous amount
of unwanted and unnecessary mail: always consider carefully
whether a group reply is really required before using
- Include enough of the original message to provide
a context. Remember that Electronic Mail is not as immediate
as a telephone conversation and the recipient may not
recall the contents of the original message, especially
if he or she receives many messages each day. Including
the relevant section from the original message helps
the recipient to place your reply in context.
- Include only the minimum you need from the original
message. One of the most annoying things you can encounter
in e-mail is to have your original 5-page message quoted
back at you in its entirety, with the words "Me
too" added at the bottom. Quote back only the smallest
amount you need to make your context clear.
- Use some kind of visual indication to distinguish
between text quoted from the original message and your
new text - this makes the reply much easier to follow.
">" is a traditional marker for quoted
text, but you can use anything provided its purpose
is clear and you use it consistently.
- Pay careful attention to where your reply is going
to end up: it can be embarrassing for you if a personal
message ends up on a mailing list, and it's generally
annoying for the other list members.
- Ask yourself if your reply is really warranted -
a message sent to a list server that only says "I
agree" is probably better sent privately to the
person who originally sent the message.
- There are so many e-mail scams out there now that
some days you'll receive more of them than you will
real mail. The key to protecting yourself is simple
- just use a little common sense. If an e-mailed offer
looks too good to be true, then it IS too good to be
true. When you actually stop and read these things,
they are almost always poorly written, inconsistent,
repetitive and outrageously implausible. By all means
have a laugh, but never, ever be tempted, even for a
- No responsible bank or business will *ever* send
you an e-mail message asking you to enter your username,
password or personal details. If you get a message like
this, even if it looks convincing, DO NOT reply
or click on any links - instead, ring the bank or business
and ask them to confirm the message's legitimacy:
999 times out of 1000, it will be bogus and you should
delete it at once.
SPAM (unsolicited commercial e-mail)
- If you are tempted to advertise your business or
service by sending out e-mail to large lists of people,
then we have one word for you: DON'T. This is called
spamming, and it is the single most reviled practice
on the Internet. Sending unsolicited commercial e-mail
will have the opposite effect from anything you might
intend, and because it is explicitly mentioned in most
Internet Service Providers' terms and conditions as
a prohibited practice, it may end up costing you your
e-mail address. At the very least, you will get hundreds
or thousands of deeply irate people screaming at you.
We can't stress this one enough - DON'T
SEND SPAM; it is nothing but trouble.
- If you receive a spam message (and who doesn't,
these days?) don't assume that the person in the "From"
field of the message is actually the person who sent
it. It is a very common practice for spammers to forge
the headers of their messages to deflect the blame for
their evildoing onto someone else.
- This one is not etiquette, exactly, but it's so
important we have to mention it here. Most spam mail
will claim to have a "remove" option - an
address to which you can send a message so that you
will supposedly never get spam from the sender again.
Never, never EVER use such remove options - they simply
confirm to the spammer that your address is valid and
that you read your mail. Rather than reducing the amount
of spam you get, using a "remove" option will
almost certainly result in you getting even more
- Spam is one of the most emotive, complex social
issues facing the Internet. If you are interested in
helping to kerb this abusive practice, you might like
to consider joining one of the anti-spam action groups,
such as CAUCE (the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial
E-mail) - visit their web page at http://www.cauce.org.
- When forwarding a message, think carefully about
whether the recipient will actually appreciate it. It's
become common for people to forward jokes, funny pictures
and other incidental items on an almost open-slather
basis, without first checking whether or not the people
to whom the items are being forwarded really want to
receive them. Before forwarding incidental
mail to someone, always ask first whether or not they
- If a message contains a request that you forward
it to other people, then that's almost always a good
reason not to do so. There are many well-known hoaxes
and chain letters that have been going around the Internet
for years - for instance, the letter with the heart-rending
tale of the sick child who before he dies wants to set
a record for the most e-mail greeting cards received...
The message goes on to urge you to send a postcard to
the child, then forward the e-mail to all your friends.
Don't just blindly fall for hoaxes like this one - either
ignore them, or if they happen to seem especially worthy, ask
around and find out whether or not they are kosher before
A Signature is a small block of text appended to the
end of your messages, which usually contains your contact
information. Many mailers can add a signature to your messages
automatically. Signatures are a great idea but are subject
to abuse; balance is the key to a good signature.
- Always use a signature if you can: make sure it
identifies who you are and includes alternative means
of contacting you (phone and fax are usual). In many
systems, particularly where mail passes through gateways,
your signature may be the only means by which the recipient
can even tell who you are.
- Keep your signature short - four to seven lines
is a handy guideline for maximum signature length. Unnecessarily
long signatures waste bandwidth (especially when distributed
to lists) and can be annoying.
- Some mailers allow you to add random strings to
your signature: this is well and good and can add character
if done carefully. You should consider the following
basic rules though:
- Keep it short. The length of your quote adds
to the length of your signature. A 5,000 word excerpt
from Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason' used as a
signature will not win you many friends.
- Definitions of "offensive" vary widely:
avoid quotes that might offend people on the grounds
of religion, race, politics or sexuality.
- Avoid topical or local quotes, since they may
be meaningless to recipients in other towns, countries
Variable signatures are usually best if they're amusing;
polemical outbursts on politics or other such topics will
turn most people off, but a one-liner that brings a smile
can make someone's day.
Electronic mail is all about communication with other
people, and as such some basic courtesy never goes amiss.
- If you're asking for something, don't forget to
say "please". Similarly, if someone does something
for you, it never hurts to say "thank you".
While this might sound trivial, or even insulting, it's
astonishing how many people who are perfectly polite
in everyday life seem to forget their manners in their
- Don't expect an immediate answer. The fact that
you don't get an answer from someone in ten minutes
does not mean that he or she is ignoring you, and is
no cause for offense. Electronic mail is all about dealing
with your communications when you are able to do so.
- Don't assume that the simple fact that you have
sent someone a message somehow obliges them to
send a reply. People who are very busy, or who occupy
very public positions may simply not have the time to
be able to reply to every message they receive, and
the fact that yours is one that misses out doesn't necessarily
reflect badly on either you or the recipient.
- Always remember that there is no such thing as a
secure mail system. It is unwise to send very personal
or sensitive information by e-mail unless you encrypt
it using a reliable encryptor. Remember the recipient
- you are not the only person who could be embarrassed
if a delicate message falls into the wrong hands.
- Include enough information: if you are sending in
a question to which you expect a response, make sure
you include enough information to make the response
possible. For example, sending the message My spreadsheet
program doesn't work to Microsoft Technical Support
really doesn't give them very much to work with; similarly,
sending the message What has happened to my order?
to a vendor is also unhelpful. When requesting technical
support, include a description of the problem and the
version of the program you're using; when following
up on an order, include the order number, your name
and organization, and any other details that might assist
in tracing your order - and so on.
"Smiley faces" (Emoticons)
Electronic mail has very nearly the immediacy of a conversation,
but is totally devoid of "body language". As many
new e-mail users quickly discover, it is depressingly easy
to send what you feel is a completely innocent mail message,
only to find that the recipient has read things into it
that you never intended, and has taken offense. The Internet
"counter-culture" has had an answer to this problem
for years - "smiley faces" (also known as "emoticons"),
or sequences of characters that are meant to look like a
face turned on its side: the idea is that using a smiley
face simulates some of the cues you would use in a face-to-face
conversation, and reduces the likelihood of being misinterpreted.
The most common smiley faces are probably these:
A smiling face seen side-on; generally used
to indicate amusement, or that a comment is
intended to be funny or ironic ("<g>"
is also sometimes used for the same purpose).
An unhappy face seen side on; generally used
to express disappointment or sorrow.
A winking smiley face; usually indicates
that something should be taken "with a
grain of salt".
A mischievous smiley face (note the devil's
horns); usually indicates that a comment is
intended to be provocative or racy.
There are hundreds of others, some more recognizable
Using the common smiley faces appropriately can markedly
improve the clarity of your message and can allow you to
express a wider range of sentiments and emotions in what
you write. Like any embellishment, however, overusing them
will destroy their value - use them sparingly.
The Bottom Line
Above all else, remember that electronic mail is about
communication with other people. When you compose an e-mail
message, read it over before sending it and ask yourself
what your reaction would be if you received it. In the end,
any time we spend on making our e-mail clearer is time well-spent,
so let's start taking the time.
[ Page modified 21 July
2009 | Content © David Harris
| Design by Technology