Home > coverstory > Things everybody hate about e-mail

Sree Sreenivasan
Live by e-mail, die by e-mail. As an e-mail addict, I’ve come to rely on it too much. I depend on e-mail as my primary communication method with almost everyone. Consider this pathetic scenario: My wife and I, sitting side by side on our bed, e-mailing each other with our WiFi laptops. Some friends refer to my copious messages as “Sree-mail.” As you can see on the screengrab from one of my Gmail accounts (below), I get thousands of non-spam messages a month. (A tip for the e-mail shy: If you don’t want to hear from strangers, don’t give out your e-mail address in a Poynter column or twice a week on New York television.)

I discovered this week that more than 100 messages sitting in the sent-mail folder of one of my non-Gmail accounts had, in fact, not been sent. Here I was, thinking that I had responded and otherwise taken care of dozens of items, only to find out that I had not. I have been told this was a one-time glitch that happened over a couple of days, but it was embarrassing and upsetting, especially when some colleagues received event notices after the events were over.

I used to hate it when people would call to ask, “Did you get my e-mail about…?” or colleagues would walk over after sending an e-mail and say, “I just sent you an e-mail about…” Not anymore. I think it’s now smart to double-check once in a while if a message is of critical importance (not every single time, but just when it’s a crucial message).

But here are some of the things I still hate about e-mail:

Senders who use only a first name or e-mail address. I hate getting e-mails from “Jen” or “John” or just “srct22114@columbia.edu” — especially from journalists. When I see such messages in my inbox, I presume they are from spammers. You should care as much about your e-mail identity as you do about your off-screen identity and appearance, so if your e-mail goes out without a first and last name, please fix it. A couple of e-mail services do not allow you to use anything but an e-mail “handle.” If that’s the case with your service, then it’s time to move on to something else, like Yahoo! Mail, Gmail, etc. (See my Gmail Web Tip.)

Bad cc use. The proper use of the cc (carbon copy) is an art, not a science, but many people don’t use it well. It can be used to get the primary recipient’s full attention (by cc-ing her boss, for instance) or to get several people into the loop at once. But it’s used badly when:
You cc a long list of recipients. It’s irritating to have to scroll down such lists. Why not send it to yourself and bcc (blind carbon copy) everyone else?
You are cc-ed on a memo with three other people and you reply only to the sender. Now the sender has to resend your message to everyone else. Some people do this by accident, but some do this deliberately and it’s very irritating.
Bad subject lines. Don’t write just “Hello” or “Hi” in a subject line. Give people a reason not to ignore your message. Use your subject lines well and be as specific as possible. If you met someone at a convention, for example, write, “SPJ convention follow-up” or something similar. Just because someone met you in person doesn’t mean he or she will always remember you when you send an e-mail for the first time. A friend who’s the executive editor of a major daily often copies the entire first paragraph of his message into his subject line. I don’t recommend that for everyone, but it sure is hard to miss his messages.

Bad advice about attachments. You’re always told, “Be careful about opening attachments from people you don’t know.” Though it’s true that attachments, especially Word documents, could have viruses, that piece of advice is dangerous because it lulls you into a false sense of security. Just because you know the person sending you an attachment doesn’t mean it’s safe. Some of your best friends may be least likely to be good about computer hygiene and virus prevention, so why trust them? My policy: be skeptical about all attachments and never send them yourself unless you have to (for instance, if you are collaborating on a document). Most documents aren’t created for collaboration, so there’s no need to send them in Word format. These days, I convert Word documents into PDFs and then send them. Sure it adds a step, but it’s worth the peace of mind. (Remember, though: No attachments, including PDFs, are 100 percent virus-proof.) See my free-PDF-creation Web Tip.

E-mail messages with no phone numbers. I made the following plea in a column earlier this year:

Please, please, please start putting a phone number in your e-mail messages, especially if you are asking the recipient to provide you with information of some kind. I am talking here to reporters who write to sources asking questions for an interview (I get asked for quotes on occasion); and to PR folks who write to journalists pitching stories (I get 10-15 pitches a day). Both kinds of messages need to have a telephone number (direct line or cell) so that the recipient can call back
(Author is Columbia Dean of Students & Poynter Visiting Proffessor)