Another year, another inbox stuffed with junk. So let’s get 2023 off on the right foot, with my opinionated guide to bad email etiquette. Whether you’re a cubicle dweller or a corporate communications supremo, here are the seven types of email you should never send.
1. The redundant reminder email. Surely I do not need an email from an airline or train company or theatrical impresario reminding me to bring my ticket? A helpful reminder to the hopelessly inept, they are a colossal annoyance to everyone else. Given that the Covid rules might have changed, or the departure time rearranged, it’s risky to delete them without careful scrutiny. But when that careful scrutiny merely reveals that I will not be allowed on the plane if I don’t bring my passport, then you’re wasting the time of your 99.9 per cent least incompetent customers. Truly debased individuals can also be guilty of the redundant reminder, as in “Just re-upping this email to the top of your inbox.” Begone, Satan! My inbox has no top or bottom. It is empty, because I block psychopaths like you without mercy.
2. The omnibus email. We’ve all received missives that ramble and digress like a pub storyteller. A long and comprehensive email has its place, but if it turns out to contain four unconnected requests it is better to send four separate emails, each with a clear subject line. On which point . . .
3. The bad subject line email. I get it, you’re too busy to write good subject lines, so you’d like me to do the work instead. Do better. Also, a word to the wise: if the subject line is “Meeting on 1 March” but the meeting has moved to 8 March, then change the subject line.
4. The midnight email. Do not send an email at midnight unless you need — and have reason to expect — a response at midnight. If you’re clearing out your own inbox at night, hit “schedule send” to ensure it arrives first thing in the morning. Same applies to work emails sent at the weekend. (Also, examine your life choices.)
5. The “donotrelpy” email. This is named in honour of the emails I receive from Oxfordshire County Council from the email address email@example.com. The typo provides some light relief whenever I check my “waiting for” folder to note that a month ago they have promised action within 10 days. The real problem is that they’re sending emails while refusing replies (or relpies). This is common — and a false economy. Making it hard for people to reach you annoys them while sweeping your own organisational problems under the rug. Does anyone really believe that the solution to receiving angry emails is to prevent customers sending the emails?
My current crusade is against the customer service team at British Airways. It’s one thing to cancel an expensive flight, and another to stall for months on the question of compensation. But the real crime is to send me no-reply emails warning that not only is there no news about the compensation, but if I tried to contact them it would only delay my claim further. The result? They never seemed to understand the problem, never fully resolved it, and now any enemy of British Airways is my friend.
In contrast, when I recently had a problem with the financial services company Wise, every interaction with them invited me simply to reply to the email I had received. The problem was annoying and mysterious and seemed to be entirely their fault, but they fixed it. And they fixed it because I was able to exchange more substantive messages with Wise in a week than I did with British Airways in months. You might think individuals do not send “do not reply” emails, but some unusual types try, by permanently maintaining an autoreply which smugly declares that they rarely check email. Dude, switch it off when you’re sending out messages. Nothing galls like an electronic butler sneering at my prompt reply.
6. The “should have been a process” email. People on automobile production lines do not send each other emails which read “Just attached the doors, would be great if you could spray paint the car soonest”. There’s a process and people follow the process rather than talking about it over email. In A World Without Email Cal Newport argues that a lot of back-and-forth email is a tedious substitute for figuring out what the process actually should be.
7. The “please see attached” email. Why would you send this email? Maybe you are a hacker and you think “please download this virus” is too obvious? My children’s schools are not staffed by hackers, yet they seem convinced that I prefer emails which contain nothing but links to mysterious documents. As a result, if I want to check the details of a school trip, a health visit, a vaccination, exam dates or anything else, I have to click on one “please see attached letter” email after another. It’s like a lucky dip in my own inbox, except that somehow I never win the chocolate bar.
So there we have it. We all complain about email, but the problem is often not its quantity but its quality. Let us all resolve to do better.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 6 January 2023.