High Programmer > Alan De Smet > Rants > FYI -or- Don't waste my time with your email

FYI -or- Don't waste my time with your email

So I got another FYI message.

You know the type. Someone I work with has forwarded me an email message. The entire commentary explaining why this message was forwarded to me is "FYI." Similarly the subject line. I'm given no context at all, no idea why I should care..

The forwarded message includes headers, a good thing. Reading the headers I can see what the original subject was and who originally sent it. Unfortunately this messages includes lots of useless headers, a bad thing. Do I really need to see "Thread-index: AcQLlGNs7w4kQuIeSRePgQyBZuoNuQ=="? Did I learn anything useful from "X-MIME-Autoconverted: from quoted-printable to 8bit by hostname.example.com id OAA29267"? These headers are in all of the messages I get, but they're hidden away. But apparently there is some brain-dead software out there that decides to copy these into the body of the forwarded message.

I finally locate the subject buried in the junk. It's in bureaucratese, the language of large organizations. Apparently it regards "NCRR Instr. ICI."

>The body of the message is confusing in two wonderful
>The email client that generated the forward marked the
>message as a quote. It then wrapped the lines. The end
>is sawtooth lines of text, just like the ones you're
>right now. This makes reading the message amazingly

Furthermore the body is rife with more bureaucratese. Apparently effective immediately earnings statements will be changed so that "Ded code 452 reads ICI CAT 1-2." Glad to hear it. Now what the hell does it mean?

Although this particular message pushed me over the edge, it's just a symptom of the general and more serious problem:

Email makes people sloppy.

My word, it sure is easy to send email. Just click the send button and off it goes. With another few clicks it goes to ten people, or a hundred people, or a thousand people. Wow isn't communication great? We're spreading information faster than ever.

The problem is that while information is important, it's actually good information that is important. We've got lots of information, but the vast majority of it is crap. Finding the good stuff takes time as I need to wade through the crap. Email makes it easy to send me good information, but it makes it even easier to send me crap. I definitely don't need more crap.

Why do I care so much? How much crap do I get? Professionally I receive about 150 messages a day. I regularly see spikes of 200 messages in a day. Buried in the piles of stuff I can probably ignore are some pile that I need to be aware of, a lesser number that I must read and react to, and a handful of things I should respond to immediately. The majority can be ignored. But on the surface it's hard to tell which is which.

To try and cope I use the best tools I can. SpamAssassin filters out most of the spam (about 30 messages a day). The ultra-powerful Procmail does a reasonable job or sorting out obvious things. Mutt does a good job of helping me dig through what remains. But despite using some of the best tools available email still sucks up way too much of my time.

To be fair, my experience is unusual. I'm a techie, we're much more into email and the like than other people. But what techies consider standard today will be mainstream tomorrow. Random office workers can expect this sort of flood of email in a few years. The tools will continue to advance, but they won't be vastly superior to what I'm using; just easier to use. (The tools I'm using are powerful, but very geek oriented.)

There are some simple things people can do for each other to help minimize the amount of crap they deal with. This is just polite; it shows that you care about other people's time. Unfortunately with email it's easier to be rude and selfish; it's easier to do something quick and easy for you, but irritating and time consuming for others. Clickity-click, with 10 seconds of your time you've wasted several minutes of time for a dozen people.

How to be polite when sending email:

Use descriptive Subject lines. Ideally I can decide how to handle a message simply by skimming the Subject line. A subject line of "hey" or "hello" is worthless (and will probably get you marked as spam these days). "FYI" is similarly useless, is this I something I actually care about? No idea. Did the message get forwarded, replied to, bounced, and otherwise handed around? Don't leave the subject in the form "Re: Fwd: Re: [John Smith wrote: Re: Fwd: Re: Re[3]: Company Reorganization]." That sort of junk makes it hard to scan the Subject line. In the worst case only the "Re: Fwd: Re:" junk is visible in my mail index. The worst possible case is a subject line on a message whose topic changed. Maybe originally the topic was "Team Monthly Status Report", but if the discussion has drifted to a discussion on why 40% of all sick days are taken on Mondays and Fridays the subject should be changed to reflect it. The solution is simple: before sending check the subject line and ensure that it's appropriate. There should only ever be one of Re: or Fwd:.

Email as few people as possible Sure, it's easy to send your announcement about free donuts in the breakroom to the entire team, but if your team is scattered across the country it's a bad idea. The San Diego folks don't need or want to hear about donuts physically in Wisconsin. I receive a lot of lost-and-found announcements for a building I've never stepped into. I get departmental announcements from a department I know nothing about. Similarly, if a discussion's focus changes, change the recipients. Perhaps the meeting minutes are emailed to the entire team for review. However, it's a complete waste of time for two people to trade dozens of messages about a particular item in the minutes while twenty people who don't need or care to know receive copies. Often the argument is "they might be interested," and sometimes that's true; but most of the time you'll be filling the email boxes of people trying to get work done.

Trim your messages. There is no reason to ever quote headers from an email message. (Strictly speaking there are some rare cases, but if you're not a techie you can treat it as never). Do the people you're sending it to need to see the email addresses of everyone who was ever copied on the message? How about 6 copies of the subject? They certainly don't ever need to know what the "Thread-index" was. Delete parts of messages that are no longer relevant. More than once I've been copied on a multi-page email spanning a dozen message. Most of the messages were irrelevant to why I was brought into the conversation, so why was I digging through them? You should automatically delete signatures and irrelevant pleasantries. In general delete to the bare minimum necessary to maintain context. Ideally this is only a few lines.

One defense for quoting every message in a conversation is that it provides context to someone new joining the conversation. This is stupid on multiple levels. First, people are using powerful email clients with filtering, threading, and the like to help organize email. When you have a dozen messages inside a single message all of that capability is flushed down the toilet; you're left with a single giant message. Second, any given message will only include one thread of the conversation; any non-trivial conversation will include multiple threads. The correct solution to provide context is to "Bounce" the original messages to the new person. (Bouncing is similar to "Forward", except that the message is not altered in the slightest. This ensures that those powerful tools like threading work properly.)

Provide context. When you add someone to an existing conversation (by adding them to the To: or CC: line when replying or Forwarding an existing message), take the time to briefly explain why they care. "FYI" isn't good enough. You can assume "FYI" will be interpreted as "You can ignore this." If that's the case, why forward it at all? Instead explain to the recipient why they should look at the rest of the message. Instead of "FYI" try something like "Marketing is making new claims about the product, you might want to make sure that they match engineering's beliefs. Here are the new claims." Similarly, "The co-pay on your health plan is increasing, the full details are below." Instead of "Comments?" or "Opinions?" specify which issue you want addressed. Something like, "We're not sure if adjusting the schedule as suggested below is realistic. Do you have thoughts on the adjustment?"

No top posting.

A: No.

Q: Should I include quotations after my reply?

Top posting places responses before the items being responded to. This inverts long accepted practice. To read the messages in chronological order you need to jump to the end, scan upwards to find the start of the last message, read down that message, then scan up to the previous message, then read down again, and so on. Messages should be quoted in chronological order. Your reply should be below the quoted text. Some people will complain that if you're quoting lots of text this is bad; your reply may be pages and pages down. They've completely missed the point! If you trim the messages you're quoting (see the previous point) it's not a problem. You've created a new problem and a broken solution because you didn't do the right thing in the first place.

Use your real name. At least use your real name when emailing strangers or emailing someone professionally. If you can't be bothered to identify yourself, why should I read your message? Given mail from two strangers, I'm much more likely to read and reply to the message from "Philip Jacobson" than "KittenLuvr". Pseudonyms are fine for idle chatting, but if you're asking a stranger for information or advice it's just rude. In a professional setting it is completely unacceptable. I like to know who I am interacting with. Similarly, don't leave your "Real Name" field blank. Something as useless as kitten5000@example.com doesn't inspire a desire to pay attention to you.

Use proper grammar. This isn't text messaging, u cn use all the lttrs. Use basic capitalization; trust me, you're not as clever as E. E. Cummings. If you know you're a bad speller, get a spellchecker. I'm willing to forgive minor typos and errors. If English isn't your native language, I'm quite forgiving. But I receive far too much professional email that looks like it was written by a 14-year old more familiar with typing on their phone than on a keyboard.

While I've focused on professional email, this pretty much applies to any case where you are emailing a stranger. Indeed, I get a lot of email regarding Unique ID. A shocking amount of it fails these basic guidelines. The writers are lucky that it's my nature to be helpful, I'm sorely tempted to ignore messages from J311seshunz with a subject of "can u hlp w ca num".

Please, for the sake of those who read the mail you send, remember that by sending someone mail you're asking for some of their time. Shouldn't you try to not waste it? If you're wasting their time, why should they bother reading your mail?

(Edited: some minor cleanups. Note to self: don't post rants when tired.)

(Update 2006-11-14: Further typos. Thanks Jerry Cosyn for pointing out my grammar typo.)

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