Usability - Productivity - Business - The web - Singapore & Twins

eMail etiquette - the 60ties are calling

With WFH being en vogue these days, not only video conferencing and chat, but also eMail.
Dating back to the 1960ties, we had 6 decades to develop etiquette, which seems tobe lost to current users, so here we go again


eMail has To, CopyTo (also called CC for Carbon Copy) and BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) as a means of addressing people. They serve distinct purposes:

  • TO: This is the person (or people) we want to act on our message, do something, reply etc. A good email has only few names, ideally one. If we have an ongoing eMail thread that involves multiple actors, we most likely use the wrong channel and are better of using collaborative software like HCL Connections, HCL Sametime, Slack, Teams or Chatter
  • CC: People, we think, who should be keept in the loop. We don't expect any action or reaction of them. A lot of eMail veterans automatically route those messages to a low priority place
    -- BCC: all receipients here get the message and the rest of the addressies won't know. I used to call it the "mobbing copy". BCC is especially fun when someone there hits "reply all" and reveals the readership. There are few legitimate uses for this. One is distribution lists (see below), the other archive/record keeping. Our external readers don't need to know that your compliance archive has the eMail address compliance@acme.com If we really want someone outside the visible thread to take note - forward the message

Subject line

It is like a tweet about our content. The subject needs to justify why it is worth the time and attention to open it. So "Status", "Report" or "Important" don't cut it. Common practise we can see are qualifiers, e.g Opportunity codes or project IDs at the beginning. Something like [T3453] - makes it easier to filter.

The biggest competitor to inbox attention by subject is the sender identity. We probably open a message one or two reporting managers up even with bad subject lines.


Let's keep it crisp and short, best below 5 sentences.

We state:

  • the information we want to provide
  • the exact ask what action we expect, from whom and when
  • name the person "team please look into... " doesn't cut it and is an indicator of a broken process

If there is a lot of information, it might better live in a Wiki, a project place or even a file share. We then provide the news cast overview and a link - Would you like to know more?

There are some interesting cultural differences. In Anglosaxon or Eastern culture we would politely address the person and add a whiff of smalltalk, something along the lines "hope that finds you well". Germans, Dutch and other Nordics consider this a waste of space and time and consider it as the ultimate courtesy to cut through the chase and get to the point.

When we address close co-workers, who value efficiency, it even is OK to skip the greeting. We need to dread carefully here, it needs to be clarified otherwise it is seen ultra rude.


Do we reply to the sender or all of the addressies together. It seems to be the default for many "replyToAll". This is especially hillarious when a distribution list sneaked on the addressies. The rationale here is: the sender wanted to keep all these in the loop, so I won't break it. For a small group, I hit replyAll, for larger ones only reply.

I would wish the eMail software would warn when you blast a reply. The guardian agrees: don't replyAll.

A special mention: cherry-picking replies. We hit reply all and remove the mailing lists - good. We just remove the project manager we compete with - bad. So we need to be careful of the ramifications. Other receipients might wonder: why are Jane and Joe no longer in this conversation?

Distribution lists

They firmly belong in BCC - avoids ReplyAll armageddon. When we use private distribution list, we need to make sure, they resolve before sending otherwise people can't reply. However - most likely - that group of people would be better served with a shared channel. A good strategy: we put it in BCC, write a two sencent summary and provide a link to the full info. Co-workers who are not into eMail will find in in their [insert the collaborative tool you use]

As usual YMMV

Posted by on 27 March 2020 | Comments (1) | categories: GTD Intercultural


  1. posted by John Lindsay on Friday 27 March 2020 AD:

    Hi Stephan, thanks for that, I think it should be required reading for some folk. There is only one thing missing in email. A "For Info" sending category. My mate who was in the Royal Navy told me about it. It is commonly used for Memos that have lots of attachments. Superiors probably only need the confirmation that it is being dealt with and not all the paperwork. It would certainly cut down on Mail File sizes if the attachments could be directed only to those that need them. There is always the option to send a link I guess but that is not available to everyone.