The Rules of Email

by Guy Kawasaki (reprinted with permission)

Much to the relief of my wife, I no longer deny that I’m obsessed with email. (She views this admission as the first step to a cure.) I receive fifty messages per day and send 100. When I check any of the five (down from seven) services that I use, and find that I don’t have email, I get depressed.

My passion for email has gotten so bad that I started a company to create an email product–there is no greater inspiration for starting a company than wanting to use its product. And there is no greater inspiration for writing than to communicate information that directly impacts your life, so all you emailers out there, please observe these rules of email etiquette.

Files: Just Say No!

1) Don’t send a file unless the recipient wants it and expects it. I’ve gotten three-paragraph letters that were sent as files with a cover message that said, “Please read attached letter.” Only bozos send files when they don’t need to. They assume that files will be properly downloaded and that recipients have the applications to open them. Then there’s the assumption that recipients want to see the GIF file of a bozo’s face or a bozo’s resume in QuarkXPress using Giovanni Book.

2) Don’t explain your life story–get to the bottom-line reason you’re writing. Many messages start off with four long paragraphs explaining the sender’s life history, starting with their Apgar score. For goodness sake, show some self confidence. You don’t need to explain who you are or justify why you’re writing to elicit a response. If the recipient is going to answer, he’s going to answer. If not, life goes on.

3) Describe the topic of your message in the subject area. This helps both you and your recipient. When your recipients have inboxes full of messages, they are going to make the decision about which messages to read and answer based on who sent the message and what the subject is. (In my case, for example, “Love your books!” will always work.) The subject area is indispensable for the recipient to find a message that was filed away.

ALL CAPS: Just Say No!

[There should be a paragraph here explaining that using all caps makes
it look like you are shouting, but it seems to have disappeared.]

5) Quote the text from the incoming message in a reply. Hours, days, or even weeks can pass between the time a message is sent and a reply received. In that time, people can easily forget what they asked. For example, incoming message: “How’s the new vacuum cleaner?” Answer, a few weeks later: “It really sucks.” The convention is to place a “>” symbol or two in front of the question or comment in order to signal that this is the issue that you’re addressing.

6) Use carbon copies and blind carbon copies sparingly. Hardly anyone who gets a carbon copy or blind carbon copy message wants it. The sender thinks he’s keeping people “in the loop,” covering his assets, or intimidating someone. I often get a carbon copy of messages sent to [then-Apple Computer CEO] Mike Spindler. Senders must think that Mike is going to be intimidated by the fact that I got the message too, that I will contact Mike on their behalf, or that Mike cares what I think. Dream on.

Chain Letters: Just Say No!

7) Never create or forward “chain-letter” email. There is nothing funny, cute, or redeeming about this practice. People who do this should lose their email accounts. However, it is okay to send copies of interesting messages and postings–for example, the hilarious press release about Microsoft buying the Roman Catholic Church–to people you know.

8) Practice the 5 to 1 rule: for every five words in an incoming message, your reply should have one. Someone once told me that my emails are “curt but complete.” He was trying to insult me, but I took it as praise. A lot of email is venting of emotions. It’s not necessary or prudent to respond to each and every point, arguing and commenting tit for tat. A simple, “Thanks for your comments.” is sufficient.

9) Use signatures sparingly. Signatures are the text that people place at the end of messages. They contain information such as phone and fax numbers and company names. Some people, unfortunately, go overboard and create elaborate signatures with poetry, quotes, and ASCII art. Not that many people want to see the ASCII art rendition of your dog, so simplify your signature or don’t use one at all.

The Golden Rule: Just Say So!

It’s impossible to cover every situation in a column, so always remember the Golden Rule of Email: Message unto others as you would have them message unto you. If you want to be graded on your email etiquette, send me a message at I will tell you in advance, however, that messages in all caps, with file attachments, or with long signatures, will fail.

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