TFM:Electronic Mail

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Electronic Mail

Matthew Beauregard

Email was described last century as the Internet's "killer application". We thus feel safe in assuming that you have a reasonable grasp of how it works, but if you've just joined us from Planet Hotmail (or Yahoo!, or GMail...) you might find the next few chapters horizon-expanding.


You have a lot of choice about what program to use for reading and sending email. For a start, two web-based options that you may not have discovered yet are for your IT account and for your ProgSoc account.

If you discover that using a UNIX shell account and doing things from a terminal suits your way of working, you'll want to look into one of the console-based email clients. Following this chapter we'll cover mutt. To decide whether they're your cup of tea you should pick one, and use it until you're making the correct keystrokes without having to think about it or look them up in TFM. If you don't reach this level of proficiency you won't understand why so many ProgSocialites use console-based email clients.


Electronic mail over the Internet has been around for just on 45 years, and in that time a whole bunch of grizzled engineers obsessed with efficiency in terms of time, data and thought have settled on certain modes of behaviour for email. You may never have bumped into any of these types before, but ProgSoc is full of them and they make up large swathes of the Internet, systems administration and UNIX programming industries too. And they all get grumpy about etiquette, either because efficiency is just a way of life or because efficiency is what gets them through 2500 emails a day.[1] Play your part in keeping engineers out of anger management programmes by absorbing the wisdom of the ancients.


When you reply to an email, most mail clients will quote the text to which you're replying. That is, it'll be inserted into your email with some mark that differentiates it from the text you type, such as >. Now it might be news to people used to how Outlook Express composes replies, but if you write your reply below the quoted text it's far more readable. This is the same natural and intuitive chronological order seen in such older technologies as conversations and books.

If you reply after quoted text rather than in a big lump at the top, you also have the opportunity to make several different points right after the relevant pieces of the original email. This makes your context clear and keeps your email easy to understand. It's an especial help when more than two people are involved in the discussion.

Delete quoted lines if they're not relevant to the points you're making. Leaving in irrelevant quoted text makes it harder to locate and understand your new content.

People have argued that replying at the top of previous emails and not deleting irrelevant text is important because it preserves a copy of the original email. It turns out that due to innovations such as your client's sent-mail folder and automatic archiving of mailing lists, passing around the complete history of a discussion at the bottom of every email is unnecessary and wasteful.


Written communications have historically had the drawback of being without nonverbal subcarriers such as tone of voice and facial expression, which convey emotion and attitude in spoken communications. As far as the Internet is concerned, this was greatly ameliorated in 1982 with the devising of emoticons, textual symbols that represent emotional states. Even if you've never sensed the drawback before, if you start using emoticons in your emails you'll probably find them a natural fit and wind up fighting off the temptation to use them in assignments, on exam papers and in the footnotes of your thesis.[2]

People have assembled lists containing hundreds of emoticons. This is great, because it keeps those people off the streets and out of trouble. Meanwhile, here's a list of the emoticons you're going to need:

:-) Happy; joking
:-( Sad; angry

Oh, and

;-) Winking, however you want to interpret that
:-p Tongue in cheek or out of mouth, depending on whom you like to believe

Yes indeed, they do make more sense if you rotate your head about π / 2 to the left.

Crossposting and Forwarding

Crossposting is sending an email to more than one mailing list. It often provokes a reaction from people on those lists that you might think is completely out of proportion to the act. People tend to take a hard line against it because a lot of crossposted mail is partly or totally irrelevant to some of the lists it's posted to. Avoid this problem altogether by posting to only one list at a time and customising your message for each list if it's necessary.

Some people, when they get an email with some rude words in it, or a list of jokes about men and women, or a photo of a truck with COCK POLISHING on the side, simply burst with an urge to share the joy with everyone they know and every mailing list they happen to subscribe to. Don't do this. You've just met a whole lot of new and interesting people and there are several reasons why forwarding hilarious emails to them would be ill-advised. You know that guy who gets 2500 emails a day? He's seen the truck with COCK POLISHING on the side. He saw it in 1998. Probably he's seen it once a week since then because people keep forwarding it to him. Might also turn out that the day you forward him a copy of "19 Sure-Fire Ways To Know You're A Woman"[3] is the day his company's HR department decides to audit his inbox. And in general you're unlikely to impress anyone by passing on the email forward du jour, unless you know it's matched to their interests or sense of humour.

Also beware of "warning" emails you may receive, especially the ones that say "forward this to everyone in your address book" at the bottom. You might want to check an email hoax archive such as before you propagate a false warning and get a whole bunch of emails back telling you that it's a hoax.

Flaming and Trolling

  • flame n. A hostile, provocative or insulting email
  • troll n. An email designed to provoke flames or entice less experienced people into making themselves look stupid

These go hand in hand, obviously. A cunningly-constructed troll is a thing of beauty that can earn you great admiration in the right place and time. Even exceptionally good flames can get respect. But no one likes shoddy work so until you're a master of the art you should keep your emails moderate and friendly.

One of the common causes of flames is a strange tendency for discussions via email to seem a lot more important and a lot more violent than they actually are. Remember that email is not a magic tool that will allow you to change people's opinions more readily than you could in spoken conversation, and in the absence of nonverbal cues discussions seem like arguments and arguments seem like pitched battles. And whatever fleeting glory you may or may not receive for having the last word frequently comes at the expense of lasting damage to your reputation. Double damage if you were trolled!

  1. Or would you believe, 2500 emails before second caffeine break? How, you ask? In the author's case it took procmail, mutt, spamassassin, grepmail and some emacs form-reply macros.
  2. In one terrible incident, a gentleman even had an emoticon lettered onto the back of his jersey.
  3. Actual title of email, also received in 1998. This author knows one sure-fire way, and hasn't thought beyond it.
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