In e-mail etiquette, the catchphrase should be: Keep it simple, stupid

On the subject of e-mail etiquette, last issue’s column discussed the advisability
of keeping messages brief and in plain ASCII text.

It’s getting to the point that agencies need to establish strict policies to keep
government e-mail from getting out of hand, as it has in private-sector organizations.

I’m not talking about an occasional joke or birthday greeting to an individual,
but about sending things, frequently, to a whole mail list. It borders on spam.

Rarely should you have to read more than the subject line or the first sentence to know
whether to delete the message or what reply to send.

Unfortunately, too many people insist on writing paragraphs of filler before they get
to the point. That makes e-mail a lot like staff meetings.

Attachments are fine if the addressee wants and can handle them. Otherwise they are a
pain in the hard drive—attachments can shelter viruses. Why would any sane user want
a Hypertext Markup Language or Adobe Portable Document Format file in e-mail from a

Whenever I get a .pdf in the mail, I’m tempted to reply in the same fashion by
attaching an enormous nonsense file. I often wonder whether it would produce a nasty
response asking why I wasted the other person’s time and bandwidth.

If everybody put Adobe Acrobat files in their messages, mail servers would
simultaneously crash around the world.

Internal e-mail in any organization with more than about 20 employees floods in boxes
with everything from Little League scores (complete with yearly stats in attachments) to
new puppy announcements. These are often general mailings, not even targeted to people who
might be interested.

How many important notices get missed because of junk e-mail employees have to wade
through every day?

We put up with the nuisance because e-mail, properly used, improves everyone’s
productivity. It eliminates the game of phone tag. It lets us get messages at our
convenience from around the world at any hour of day or night. Unlike voice mail, it can
travel with us almost anywhere.

Good e-mail takes less time to convey useful information than a letter or the
occasional phone call that actually gets through to a human instead of voice mail.

Faxing is so far behind e-mail that I don’t do it any more. Too many people suffer
from the delusion that scanning and faxing a barely readable document will somehow
magically make it clear and legible at the receiving end.

E-mail that comes in plain text is easy to file, search and archive.

Agencies are busy finding convenient new ways to archive their official records via
e-mail without messing around with paper, printers or warehouses.

That does not apply, of course, to attachments or messages that are gussied up with so
many colors and special fonts that they are difficult to read.

Here are a few rules you might want to consider in developing internal policies on

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.