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Blips on the Email Screen

A Canadian reader raised a valuable question about an email behavior that seems unprofessional to him. The questionable business writing practice is sending emails in which the subject states the whole, or nearly the whole, message. Here are two examples:

Subject: Can you please order toner for the printer?
[Followed by nothing in the body of the message.]

Subject: Esther Willard has arrived
[Body:] and is waiting in Conference Room B.

Although he objects to this slapdash use of email, my Canadian neighbor wonders whether he is just being picky.

What do you think? Is this acceptable email etiquette?

To judge whether a behavior is acceptable, I imagine myself in the reader’s place and consider whether it works for the reader. In the first instance, if I were the person responsible for ordering toner, I would find the email subject “Can you please order toner for the printer?” perfectly acceptable–if it were followed by a thank you and the writer’s name in the body of the message.

And if I were waiting for Esther Willard, I would be grateful for the email blip announcing her arrival–especially if I were on the telephone and therefore could not get a phone call.

These uses–much like Instant Messaging–seem practical and quite reasonable to me. They take subject line efficiency to a new level, and I like that. In classes, I recommend that people use the abbreviation EOM at the end of a one-line message. EOM stands for “end of message.” Of course, your reader must understand the abbreviation, as I am reminded by my accountant friends, who live with End of Month reporting.

Plenty of email habits make me shriek, but these blips are not among them. As long as the condensed messages suit the circumstances, their speed and efficiency can help me be more efficient too.

What is your view?

Other search spellings: etiquitte, etequitte, etiqueete, etiquite, wirting, writng, emial.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “Blips on the Email Screen”

  • I don’t have a problem with the-subject-is-the-message emails. That’s far preferable to no-subject, or opaque-subject emails.

    I’ll have to bring this up on my blog: I recently had an ironic post about “How to write an email that sucks.”

  • Those subject lines are great – why waste people’s time making them read more than they need to read? The more serious problem is e-mail with nothing in the subject line. A blank subject line forces readers to open the message – or, more likely, encourages them to delete it without reading. A blank subject line can also land your message in the spam folder.

  • Roy, thanks for the poll–excellent idea.

    Janis, you’re right about the blank subject line. To get more information about the message, I do this in Outlook: Click the message without opening it, then click Options. A box indicates the email address of the sender–or spammer. It also indicates the amount of HTML in the message and other details that help me determine whether to open the email.

  • I am conditioned to read Outlook and Hotmail email and immediately go to the body of the message. Blank subject lines bother me unless it’s from my auto mechanic.

    Breaking up a sentence is risky, depending on the content and the receiver’s personal or professional style. Who decides the definition of “appropriate”?

    I watch people spend more time sending text or voice messages than really connecting with others. I question the forethought of those who have to send one sentence messages back and forth. That kind of email correspondence is distracting and a waste of time in my opinion, albeit sometimes essential.

  • Ann, blank subject lines drive me nuts. I hate that I have to stop and think about whether to open the email.

    As to who decides whether something is appropriate, for the most part our readers do. That is, if they don’t like what we are doing, it’s inappropriate. It doesn’t get the positive reaction we had intended. As you indicated, it has to do with our reader’s personal and professional style. What is appropriate with one person (for example, a smiley face), can be totally off-putting to another.

    I enjoy connecting with people by phone. I do find, though, that email can be much more efficient if I have a brief message. Except for perhaps a quick sentence, email doesn’t require catching up and talking about the weekend or the family.

    Thanks for commenting.


  • The subject-is-the-whole-message emails need to a closure, like initials, at the end of the subject line to hint that’s all there is. If that one sentence conveys the whole point, it’s appropriate.

    Blank, vague and non-descriptive email subject lines provide no hint of the subject of the message. The subject is the first thing read in the list of emails. I use the subject line to know what messages to defer and which need reading now.

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