The many cultures of email writing

Daring Fireball has an article on correct email writing that caught my eye at some point during web surfing yesterday, and I got around to reading it this morning. John Gruber writes:

The fundamental source of poor email style is the practice of quoting the entire message you’re replying to…. Writing an email is like writing an article. Only quote the relevant parts, interspersing your new remarks between the quoted passages. Don’t quote anything at all from the original message if you don’t have to.

John Gruber’s got a very good point and I totally agree. That’s exactly how I prefer my email to come in and how I used to write back all the time. But it occurred to me I haven’t been writing back like that lately — not at all. So what the hell happened?

LotusNotes. LotusNotes is a bitch to use if you want to do anything but top-quote. The closest I’ve had the patience to do is copy one or two lines from the note below, italicize them, and then add comments below. If a note’s got a lot of questions in it I’ll turn on the “permanent pen” feature and respond to the original note in a different color and font.

But that’s become discouraged, really, by the culture born of this product. Because everyone top-quotes, you always know what’s already been said. Since anyone can walk into the thread at any time and pick up the full context of the conversation, Notes gets used as an asynchronous online meeting all day every day. The resulting corporate culture expects that when you have something to ask of your project team (or any other group), even if only one member of the group really has the answer to your question, you’ll write to the whole team, so that everyone’s kept informed of the important aspects of the project.

As a result, most of the notes I write have multiple recipients. Throughout a long-living thread, old recipients get dropped off and new ones added on a regular basis. It’s the functional equivalent of a live meeting where someone leaving to go get someone else who knows more about the current subject, or three or four people leaving because they’re no longer needed, while two decision-makers are pulled in. Because of the asynchronous nature of this meeting, it’s the way I prefer to work. I can chime into the meeting where I’m needed and get some actual work done while I’m not needed. I can even *gasp* eat lunch.

But because you never know who’s going to get added to the thread, or when, it’s considered extremely poor style to delete the previous messages in the thread. Occasionally when I know I’m fully changing audiences on a note, I’ll nuke everything but the last note or two and then forward it to the new victims readers, but there’s often no opportunity to do that.

In many cases, it doesn’t pay to do so even if the opportunity arises. At any time without warning, my message could be sent to one of the higher-ups in the company. It’s a really good idea to just leave the whole thread alone so they get the whole story.

So when it comes to fitting into my asynchronous meeting corporate culture, I respectfully disagree with John’s style guide, not because I think it’s incorrect, but because I think it’s inappropriate for the email users’ intent in our specific situation.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that my work email habits have started to overflow to home, where Apple Mail is perfectly capable of inline quoting and where I rarely write to more than one recipient. (My iPhone I’m not as sure – have to check.) Yet, I’ve pretty much stopped using it because I’ve been indoctrinated into using this horrible horrible writing style for Notes. On that count, I need to retrain myself to write back in the proper style.

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