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Vox Pop: Your best "best practice" for email?

Short Subject: Now You're Talking (1927)

prosaic [on email]

Chris Streeter picks up on a thread that I've been thinking about a lot lately (and he's kind to mention the relationship to Inbox Zero).

He reminds us that the etiquette for using a telephone was once well-established enough to earn a place in the encyclopedia:

the encyclopedia told you how to answer the phone. not how to pick it up and dial or how the phone switching system worked, but what to say. it even had illustrations (little susie picking up the phone, announcing her residence, listening attentively, etc.). anyway, the point is, nobody ever set the ground rules for email. nobody ever said, this is what the subject line should cover, this is how many sentences an email ought to be, this is how long you should reasonably expect a person to wait to reply, etc. they just threw it at us and let everyone make up their own rules. of course, everyone will make up their own rules anyway, and that encyclopedia sure did a helluva lot of good with our phone manners, didn't it? but still, the idea that we have never, ever, worked out a set of rules or mores for email is kind of incredible.

I think a lot of people would scoff at the idea of a standard for email communication, and I'll admit that I'm not sure what a truly comprehensive -- or even 80-percent-universal -- set of best practices would look like. But, that, in some ways is the problem.

"Netiquette" was pounded into my head from day one on the 'net, but I'll freely admit I've never been 100% -- at least partly because email was clearly the Wild West from a lot of people's perspective. We've each been free to evolve or fall ass-backwards into an understanding of how email should be used. How would we begin to ensure that any two given strangers could be on roughly the same page about what email is even for?

I doubt this is a problem that has one answer, but I'm intrigued to consider how we might start solving it if it were. So...

The Question to You:

Think about what you’d do if you ran the world. If you had to choose a single best practice for email usage — format, length, subject matter, even when not to use email.
If you could wave a magic wand and put one guideline in place that would be honored by 80% of civilized people, what would it be? Be creative as you like, but remember: it has to be generic enough that it would work for 80% of email communication everywhere.

What should almost everyone start doing differently with their email today?

Ian's picture

I agree with BigNerd that...

I agree with BigNerd that dictating email style hampers free speech, and is ultimately an exercise in futility. So instead, my "magic wand" is pointed at myself: here's what I wish everyone did:

Acknowledge all emails. (Only where required - see below). Do it regularly (not instantly), even if just to say "I read your email and can't reply yet" or "I'd prefer to talk on the phone about this". That way, email goes back to being an assured delivery method, which is why it was so cool in the first place: you KNOW your recipient got your message.

One of the reasons myspace is winning as the preference of the next generation is assured delivery: you know that if you send someone a message, they'll see it. They might ignore or delete it, but you can (more or less) prove that they at least saw it, because you can see when they last logged in. And people act accordingly. Contrast that with email, where spam filters trap LOTS of legit mail, and plain old "email overload" causes people to throw up their hands and ignore / delete unread messages. When I send an email, I often have no idea if it was ever read, but when I send a myspace message, I'm pretty damn sure it was. Obeying a universal "law of replies" might bring that feeling back to email.

(And for the record, return receipts are no good for this - they're invasive of my privacy ... why should you know EXACTLY when I read your email? The acknowledgment has to be volitional.)

Three exceptions to the "Acknowledge All Email" rule:

1 - If it's a thread, I agree with Ed Eubanks that the last "Thanks." email is just annoying. My rule applies primarily to the first reply, where acknowledgement is novel. That said, it's polite and nothing to get worked up about.

2 - This rule doesn't always apply within an organization, where email delivery is already pretty much guaranteed, or with anyone you work with regularly enough to have confidence in delivery. If you're at that level, good for you. Still, a prompt reply (where warranted) is courteous.

3 - If an email requires no reply, I agree with Matt - the sender should indicate that by starting with "FYI" or some similar convention. We've got enough email in the universe, so if you can end a thread before it starts, do so.

And to chime in on two other topics:

Subject lines? Who cares - just parse out your tasks, get 'em into your system, and archive. All you folks complaining about bad subject lines ... it's because you use your inbox to implicitly store your tasks, isn't it? Come on, you can admit it, Merlin won't zap you (AFAIK). You're just piling that work on yourselves; parse the tasks out of an email once, and you'll never held hostage by someone else's bad subject line again.

Formatting? I'm going to go against the grain on the HTML email thing. If you don't want to read HTML emails, that's fine, but don't put the burden on me; run a script that pulls out just the text on your own machine. There's no inherent reason that text communications shouldn't include formatting like bold and italics; anything that helps convey tone is OK in my book. HTML is (unfortunately) the most standard option we've got, so until there's a better rich text standard that's universal, it'll have to do. (But I'll grant you that the prescriptive rule should be that you don't put meaningless formatting in the message - no funky backgrounds, animated gifs or comic sans. Use it to enrich, not distract.)




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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