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[LINK] Decorum in email and mailing lists - especially when asking for help

From: by way of <rw@firstpr.com.au>
Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2001 07:35:15 -0500
Message-Id: <200103131235.HAA07303@tux.w3.org>
To: www-archive@w3.org
[should show up in http://www.anu.edu.au/mail-archives/link/link0103/ too

Message-ID: <3AAD66A1.736C4178@firstpr.com.au>
Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2001 11:15:29 +1100
From: Robin Whittle <rw@firstpr.com.au>
Organization: First Principles
To: Link mailing list <link@www.anu.edu.au>
Subject: [LINK] Decorum in email and mailing lists - especially when asking
for help

Here is something I wrote for another list. I got some really
appreciative responses and a request to copy it to another list.  I
wrote it after a kerfuffle resulting from me objecting to the way
someone asked me, on the list, a poorly defined question, which required
a long complex answer, by writing just a few words and no signature
(they did not even state their name) or indication that they had thought
about it for more than about 20 seconds.  

I don't think the problems I highlight here are much of a problem on
Link, but since many Linkers are intensive email users, and are on, or
run, other mailing lists, I figure it might interest some Linkers.

- Robin

Decorum in email and mailing lists - especially when asking for help

     Originally written for the Analogue Heaven mailing list which 
     concerns analogue electronic musical instruments.   


This is a general issue, for this list and for others, and for people
who ask questions of strangers in private email.  If the moderators of
this list rule it off topic, so be it - I won't contribute any more to
an on-list discussion of it.

First I discuss how best to ask a question.  Secondly I comment on what
I perceive as some careless trends in email in general, which burdens
the recipient(s) with a hard-to-read and/or impersonal message.  

Both these are relevant to private emails, but become more important on
mailing lists where hundreds of people are reading.

Asking for assistance

When asking someone a question which requires a detailed answer, you are
asking them to spend minutes or potentially an hour or more writing
something.  Generally it involves thinking and researching in order to
give the correct answer.  It also involves anticipating your present
level of understanding of the field, what sort of answer you want, and
what sort of vocabulary to use when answering.  You may also be asking
them to ask you to refine your question before they can answer it
properly - so you are asking them to involve themselves in an ongoing
email exchange.

If you ask on a mailing list, you are asking the person to write to
"publication standard" since their words will be read my hundreds of
people.  In addition, the answer to a mailing list will be archived on
one or more websites which cannot be changed or updated, and which can
be found by search engines for years afterwards.   

There are a lot of potential benefits to answering such questions and
engaging in such debates.  I am a member of dozens of email lists and I
run one of my own - on spanking and domestic discipline.  I spend a
*lot* of time on email to individual friends and correspondents, on
mailing list discussions and to potential, current and past customers. 
In general, I learn a lot - from the correspondence and by refining my
own ideas.  (For instance, what I wrote and learnt in the recent debate
on Analogue heaven about HTML email is going to go straight into a
debate about text vs. HTML on the Mozilla http://www.mozilla.org
mail/news newsgroup discussion.  There, it will affect the outcome of
this major browser/email-client project, which amongst other things is
the basis for future Netscape browsers.)

When deciding whether to put everything else I should be doing *after* a
30 to 60 minute bout of work to answer a question, (that is to delay my
entire life and all the benefits I can give to other people) I do a
cost-benefit analysis.

The primary questions are:

   Does the person - or other readers - want to know the answer bad
   enough that I should invest the time?

   Do I want to know the answer enough to put in the effort?

   What other benefits might flow to me or anyone else from such 
   an exchange?

   Has the person looked on my website or done a web-search first before 
   asking me for assistance?  

So when someone writes a really brief email, with no care or effort,
then I don't feel inspired.

Slackness in emails

There is a really bad trend which is continuing to grow - towards
careless, disrespectful and hard-to-read emails.  

If you write to a person asking for help, or if you write to a list
expecting hundreds of people to read your words (so spending hours of
human effort on them) then you owe it to the reader(s) to put some
effort into your email.  Just by writing the email you are asking the
person to spend time reading it, thinking about it and deciding whether
to delete or save it and whether to ignore it or respond.

To help them, you should ensure that:

1 - It is easy to read.

2 - It answers most of the questions which it is likely to raise.

3 - The subject line of the email is as informative as possible.  This
    is a vital thing which is often overlooked.  Consider the subject
    line in the context of the recipient's cluttered In Box - especially 
    the hundreds of people on a mailing list.  A subject line such
    as "Question" or "Info request" is useless - and is 
    indistinguishable from SPAM.

4 - In so doing the above, you show respect for the reader - which helps
    them think you will appreciate a good reply.

Because of slackness, bad habits with the awful (I think) medium of IRC,
instant messengers, "chat" systems, and other fashionable and
instinctual things, there is an unfortunate tendency for people to write

1 - With no punctuation, capitalisation or even proper sentence 

2 - With lousy layout, particularly when quoting someone else.

3 - Sometimes, with HTML emails, in a way which is hard to read or
    print.  (For instance, I just received one in black text on 
    a black background.  The text was invisible, but I selected
    it can copied it to something in which I could read it.)

4 - With no proper "Dear ...." and no signing of the name of the sender.

All these make it harder for the recipient to read and understand.  The
lack of a name makes it harder for them to respond and to know who you

All these tendencies are slack and impersonal.  It takes a few seconds
more to use proper sentences and punctuation.  It takes a few seconds
more to lay out the email in a readable fashion and to sign your name. 
Yet you are expecting your recipient to spend a minute or more handling,
reading and thinking about the email.

Why should anyone be inspired to write the sort of complete, thoughtful,
response you presumably want, if they get insufficient indication that
you will put the small but proper effort into writing a communicative

A hundred years ago, many people were more literate and took much more
care with their personal communications.  Now, with communication so
much easier and cheaper and no problems reading people's hand-writing,
it is pathetic that some people can't be bothered doing a proper job of
it.  Lack of skill or time is no excuse.  If you can speak proper
sentences, you can write an email which respects the recipient by being
easy to read and so saving their time.   It is notable that I rarely
find such slackness in emails from people whose first language is not

There are instinctual tendencies to be super-brief and cryptic - and
even to be intolerant of writing which is supposedly "long" due to its
comprehensive and helpful nature.  I think this comes from teenage
secret code tendencies, and from instincts of young warriors and hunters
to show off their prowess, but not reveal their technique.  This has
devastating effects, I think, in the paucity of comments and planning in
many computer programs - which are generally written by young men in the
grip of such instincts.    But this is definitely off topic!

I am not saying that every email needs to resemble a doctoral
dissertation, and I don't care about spelling (I use a spell checker - I
can't spell *this* well!).  I don't claim to speak for anyone else, but
I believe the issues raised above are important and affect many people.

   - Robin

Additional notes:

HTML emails are often more trouble than they are worth.  This is
especially so for a mailing list which some people receive in digest
form.  Either the digest software has to automatically remove or convert
the HTML portion of the emails, or each such email is reproduced with a
plain text section followed by an HTML section, which takes up space, is
hard to read and adds no more information.

http://www.google.com finds quite a few "Email etiquette" pages.  

The Mailing List Etiquette FAQ is at:


//  Robin Whittle                   http://www.firstpr.com.au
//  Melbourne, Australia            http://fondlyandfirmly.com
//  First        Consulting and telco tech writing; Internet 
//  Principles   music marketing; Audio compression; DSP; 
//               Show and Tell; 21 Metre Sliiiiiiinky;
//               Fondly and Firmly - the Gentlemanly Art of...  
//  Real World   Electronics for music, including Devil Fish 
//  Interfaces   TB-303 modifications & Akai sampler memory.
Received on Tuesday, 13 March 2001 07:35:27 UTC

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