Pet Peeve: Poor email subject lines

Like most employees at Sun, I live and die by email.  I subscribe to a wide variety of email aliases within Sun including:

  • mac-users
  • OS ambassadors
  • Sun Federal Engineers
  • Sun Federal All Employees
  • McLean Office inhabitants
  • and more...

 I use Mozilla as my email reader at work and on my laptop (on Solaris) and home (MacOS X).  I take advantage if its email threading and labeling (with colors) capabilities as much as I can so that I can delete mail in bulk whenever possible.  However, I find that I still get dragged down into the muck by the way that many users at Sun construct their email subject lines.

A quick sampling from my trash includes such gems as:

  • Should be elementary
  • Easter Egg
  • Need help
  • Email 
  • Please read

And of course, the ever popular:

  • HELP!

Keep in mind that not everyone has configured their mail to change different alias message different colors.  Therefore, "Need help." doesn't let the reader know whether you need help physically, technically or mentally.  You could need help with Solaris, Storage, Servers, Software or getting through the door because you left your badge at home. Unless your subject line provides more information you might not get the response that you want.

I would like all email senders to keep in mind that not all of us:

  1. care about your problems
  2. have the answer that you might be looking for
  3. want to actually read a mail before deleting it

If I don't know anything about your question in the subject line, I would much rather delete it with other messages than wait for it to display before deleting.  On the flip side, if you describe your question well in your subject line, you are MUCH more likely to get a person with the correct answer to read the message and reply.

Perhaps you don't realize that when you send a message to 800 people entitled "Please read" that they can't always tell from the subject whether you want a Solaris tip or need to evacuate the building.  One message with the subject "HELP!" was requesting (I am NOT making this up) assistance in find a vet for the building manager's dog. 

To prevent all of us from wasting time and help you get the best answer possible please:
  • Describe your question in the subject line as completely as possible
  • Place the most important words at the beginning of the subject for those who use mobile devices
  • Add a ? to the end if you are asking a question.
  • Don't be afraid to change the subject in Re: and Fwd: lines to make it more appropriate to changes in the topic
  • Use a keyword such as: "Solution to:  re....." if you are providing a definitive answer to a question.

Therefore, the subject lines above might be better rendered as:

  • How to attach a disk to a mac should be elementary but I can't figure it out
  • Easter Egg on iPod when you do ......
  • Need help with NIS configuration on Solaris 10
  • Email doesn't show up in Mozilla on Mac OS.
  • Please read if you know John Smith

Why you should care. 

There, I've said it and I feel better now. Hopefully, I've managed to reduce the number of hours we all spend on email each day so that we can get more productive work done.


Oh, how much do I agree with you. Would that someone would write an app which would detect when there were no significant words in an email subject line and send an automatic reply asking for a re-send with a proper description. That would teach people to be a bit more careful!

Posted by map on August 21, 2013 at 05:39 AM EDT #

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Jim Laurent is an Oracle Sales consultant based in Reston, Virginia. He supports US DoD customers as part of the North American Public Sector hardware organization. With over 17 years experience at Sun and Oracle, he specializes in Solaris and server technologies. Prior to Oracle, Jim worked 11 years for Gould Computer Systems (later known as Encore).


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