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Do You Ignore Untitled Attachments? Think Again.

UPDATE: Yesterday I shared an example of a time that I did not open an untitled attachment when I should have. Since then several readers have commented strongly that one should NEVER open untitled attachments. I stand corrected. Please read the original post (it’s brief)—and their important comments.

Here’s the original post:

Recently I made an awkward mistake, and I want to help you avoid doing the same. You know those untitled attachments that sometimes accompany emails you receive? I’m talking about the ones you click that typically are just a name and a signature block or logo—nothing you normally need.

Click this attachment

Because I never seemed to need the information in those untitled attachments, I got out of the habit of opening them. I just ignored them, thinking they were signature blocks.

Until today.

Today when I was going through old emails, I found one (shown partially above) that I had thought was too brief–in fact, it had said nothing. I was surprised that a friendly former client had not included any message when attaching a document (a separate attachment), since he had always seemed warm and focused on good relationships.

Today I bothered to open that untitled attachment. Surprise! It held a message for me:

Hi Lynn,

I believe I’ve made all the corrections to the goofs you caught. Would you mind double-checking my revisions to be sure?

All the best,


Now I feel silly having thought this client in too much of a hurry to write a real message. But it turns out I was the one who had been in a hurry. I didn’t take time to open that file.

I wrote to him today and apologized.

Lessons learned.

Has anything similar happened to you?


Posted by Avatar photo
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.

9 comments on “Do You Ignore Untitled Attachments? Think Again.”

  • This is a great point, Lynn! I usually ignore those untitled attachments too because I think it’s part of their signature. I have accidentally ignored a photo since Gmail loads images placed inside the message a bit differently than images that are sent as attachments, or I’ve had someone tell me they didn’t see the image in my own message. Now, I’ll include the image both in the message and as an attachment to be safe.

  • Hi John,

    Thanks so much for your technical advice. I noticed that you emphasized that unnamed attachments are ALWAYS dangerous to open. Given that emphasis, are you saying that even emails from clients and friends can be suspect? (Update: Now that I’ve read more comments, I know the answer is YES.)

    I’ve updated the opening of the post so that readers don’t follow my misguided advice.

    Again, thank you.


  • Kathryn, good point. I’m not sure everyone knows how to manage that responsibility though. I don’t think my client knew that his message was an attachment. I’ll have to look into this further, considering John’s information.


  • Hello Lynn,

    Actually, you did right. Those nameless attachments can be cyber bombs or other virus containing elements.

    My advice would not be directed to you, but to the person who sent you that email–“Make sure your email is properly formatted and that your mail client doesn’t ‘attachmentize’ you by turning your email into an attachment. And make sure that the attachment you DO want looked at is clearly named and attached in a way that is easily visible.”

    So rather than warning your readers about “hidden” or “unnamed” attachments (which are ALWAYS dangerous to open), encourage your readers to make sure they have properly formatted their emails and properly attached the documents they want considered.

  • Hi Laura,

    Thank you for sharing your valuable experience. I realized that I was giving bad advice, and I have changed the opening to the blog post.


  • Emily, thank you for sharing your compelling example. I have changed the opening of the blog post so that people know not to take my misguided advice.

    I appreciate your strong position on knowing how to use one’s software. I had never used Gmail, but recently I needed to open a Gmail account for a nonprofit whose board I have joined. Now I need to make sure that my signature block on Gmail does not appear as an untitled attachment. Thanks for moving me in that direction.


  • We have been instructed (and they even sent out “test” emails to this point) to NEVER open unknown attachments. I work for a department at the State of Ohio and spamming, viruses, or other attacks are frequently contained in these attachments or email links, even if it’s a person we know and have a business relationship with. We are required to view an annual instructional video to remind us to not open unknown or unexpected attachments.

    So I have learned never to open those attachments. If someone actually sent an email like your customer did, I would never know and I would expect they would contact me again if they didn’t receive a response. At least I would hope so!

    But perhaps it’s just the business I work at that makes the difference? In the virus-laden world in which we live digitally, I would never open those attachments, personally.

  • I agree with John and others that opening unexpected and unnamed attachments can be dangerous. Recently, our firm experienced an email hack in which a director had “sent” email to various employees asking them to review a document. As it turns out, the “sent email” was from a hacker impersonating our director and the “document” was a virus. The only thing that was uncharacteristic was the way in which the impersonated director asked for the review; it was a curt message and the email did not have a subject line. Upon further investigation, the hacker wasn’t using our director’s email address; instead, the hacker impersonated the director’s name, but used a spam email address. Hackers are getting slicker and slicker and we need to be ever vigilant.

    I noticed, Lynn, that you mentioned that your client may not know how to manage that responsibility. My perspective is that if one is going to be a user of technology, then one should also be accountable for the use of such technology and should absolutely know how to manage his/her responsibility accordingly. This may be an extreme example, but I won’t ever handle a handgun because I do not know how to properly use one. I don’t want to cause a major problem because I *thought* I knew how to handle one based on what I’ve seen others do.

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