5 MORE e-mail habits that waste time and cause problems

In a previous article, I discussed a few common blunders associated with e-mail, such as veering off onto a new message topic without changing the subject line, omitting a subject line altogether, and using Reply To All when it's not necessary. Now it's time to continue this unfortunate list with a few more typical infractions.

Note: This article and the previous one are available together as a single PDF download.

#1: Omitting the context of a reply

As long as it's not overdone, including the text of the original message in your reply can help the original sender understand your response. If all you send back, however, is a "Yes" or "That's right," it may be difficult for the sender to understand your answer. For that reason, it's best to indicate the context of your answer by including the original question.

#2: Shooting the messenger

Though the practice of shooting the messenger occurs more on message boards than in e-mail, it still deserves mention. Here's what I mean by "shooting the messenger":

  • Person A posts a message or sends an e-mail that quotes person B
  • Person C

—Receives the message

—Takes extreme exception to the quotation by person B

—In responding to A, attacks A rather than B

If you're person C (the recipient), make sure you make the proper distinction when you reply. Just because A posted the comment by B doesn't mean that A agrees with B. When you reply, address your comments to A. When talking about B, mention B explicitly and do so in the third (rather than the second) person.


To: A

From: C

Thanks for that note. Yes, I think B is really wrong on that statement.


To: A

From: C

What a ridiculous statement. It's totally wrong.

#3: Misaddressed recipient

A woman and former classmate told me about an incident involving her law school days and then-boyfriend. During a summer job between two of her years in school, she met another young man. One day she wrote a letter to a girlfriend, talking about this new boyfriend. She also wrote a letter to her old boyfriend. You guessed it: A few days later, the girlfriend called and said, "You know, you sent me a letter addressed to Wayne [the old boyfriend]."

Be careful when addressing e-mail, particularly if your software has a "predictive fill-in" feature (as Outlook Express does). As you're typing in a recipient name, the software will complete the entry for you. If it's wrong, and you hit Send without noticing, you will have misaddressed your note. I have, in my address book, an entry for Joy Fellowship. It's a church youth group with whom I have been involved as a leader and to which my daughters belong. I also have an entry for their piano teacher, Joy Kiszely. When I address a note to her, I have to be careful. Because of alphabetization, Joy Fellowship appears before Joy Kiszely does. I haven't erred yet, but it's a real possibility.

#4: Displaying addresses of recipients who are strangers to each other

Were you ever the recipient of an e-mail that had a gazillion other recipients as well? The message header, which had all of those recipient addresses, probably took up half your screen. Besides annoying you, the sender might have compromised your privacy by revealing your e-mail address to all the other recipients.

Don't make the same mistake. If you're POSITIVE that each of your recipients already knows (or could find out anyway) the address of every other recipient (e.g., they're all in your company) and if the number of recipients is fairly small, go ahead and list them. Otherwise, address the note to yourself and put the recipient addresses in your blind carbon copy (bcc) field. Your recipients will not see who received your note, thus saving space and protecting the privacy of each recipient.

#5: Replying vs. forwarding

Didn't you hate it when you were young and your parents talked about you to their friends while you were present? They'd refer to you in the third person, as if you weren't even there.

I thought about that situation last week after talking to a prospective client with whom I had spoken a few months earlier. I sent him an e-mail with links to my TechRepublic articles and blogs. Later that day, I received a reply from him. However, when I opened it, here's what I read:


Despite his claim, I don't remember talking with Calvin before. It may have happened but wasn't memorable.

When you have time, could you read his article and let me know if it is worth doing anything else with it? Thanks.

Of course, the prospective client meant to forward my note to John (presumably a subordinate). Instead, he hit Reply, sending his note right back to me. Be careful that you don't do the same thing. If you're writing about person B but sending the note to person C, make sure you do forward (or send) your note to C and that you don't inadvertently reply to B.

By the way, after getting this note, I replied back to the person asking whether the note had been meant for someone else and offering to figure out who "John" was and to send him the note directly. The person replied again, apologizing and admitting that he was poor at multi-tasking.

I welcome any comments or questions you may have. My e-mail is


Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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