The scourge of the almost endless email thread

It’s email week here, and today I’d like to talk about email etiquette. As in life, if we all acted politely, things would be great for everyone, but most of us are just too busy to act as considerately as we’d like to.

Some people have gone as far as writing email charters, but really, that shouldn’t be necessary. We just need to Think Before We Hit Send. Email conversations would be easier if we treated them like text message conversations:

1. Make replies as brief as you can without being rude;
2. Allow the recipient to be brief by asking closed questions;
3. If you have multiple points or questions, ask them in multiple emails, so the recipient can respond without having to break up your email into its constituent parts and quote each one back at you.

Huge email ‘threads’ have become commonplace, thanks to systems which automatically quote the incoming email every time you hit ‘reply’. This can be helpful, but these enormous threads usually contain 5% actual conversation and 95% email signatures and disclaimers quoted over and over again. When was the last time you saw an email thread as efficient as this?


Yet they could be this way. You’re probably not forced to include your signature, disclaimers, logos and other junk to the end of every email, but even if you are, old ones in a thread can be deleted. If someone says: “Are you coming to the meeting?”, they might not read your one-word reply until much later, by which time they might need reminding what the question was; so why make them scroll down several screens to find it? A bit of editing would make you seem so much more considerate.


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