Don't Let Your Career Go Down In
Copyright (C) 2000-2001, 2012 by Steve Litt, All rights reserved. Material
provided as-is, use at your own risk.
Eleven Years in the Making
This document sat, unchanged, from 2001 until May 2012. Then I added to
it. What happened was that for several years it seemed that netiquette
pretty much summed up by "don't flame". But in the eleven years that
have passed, the composition of emailer users has gone from a pretty
Geek population with a high degree of mental organization and logic, to
basically everyone over 35. Most 20th century email users could write a
computer program or architect a network or write a bank-suitable
business plan. These people had no patience for the concept of "you
know what I mean" -- they wrote to be unmistakably and unambiguously
understood, even in their flames. Today's typical emailer is a whole
lot more right-brained,
writes in a way he or she thinks is clear, but is often abiguous and
especially tiring when a recipient must at least scan 500 non-spam
emails per day.
The Trouble with Flames
Time was (1996) you could keep your on-line life entirely separate from
your career. Those days are gone. Today's email is used to write software,
write books, formulate business strategies, hammer out contracts, and just
about everything else that was once labeled "collaboration" or "groupware".
Any technologist ineffective in the email arena will fall hopelessly behind.
So it never fails to amaze me how some truly gifted technologists deliberately
nuke their email presence with flames, personal insults, and off topic
posts. In June 1999 I personally witnessed an excellent ~60 member Linux
User Group ripped in two by a flame war started and sustained by five,
count em five, people. Today, in July 2000, one of the LUG's appears to
be dying, and the other has just now regained the membership, success and
community involvement of the original. A years worth of progress destroyed
by five people whose only priority was to ram their opinion down everyone's
throat by outshouting all others.
I've compiled a list of short clips from that flame war that split
a LUG. These are inflamitory and in some cases use vulgar language, so
please do not click this link if such language offends you, or if you are
Short clips from the 6/27/1999-7/10/1999 ELUG
splitting flame war
Most mailing lists are archived. Almost all of the flames listed in
the preceding link can be located, and displayed in full, with an AltaVista
search, complete with author's name and email address. Try the lookup yourself,
based on the text from the clips.
These flames will hang around forever, like landmines, waiting to be
discovered years from now by the authors' business associates. Imagine
going to a job interview, only to have the interviewer say "Oh yes, you're
the *^%*&^&% that flamed so and so on the such and such mailing
list. We look for a higher level of maturity from our employees. Thanks
but no thanks".
If it were easy refrain from flaming, there wouldn't be so many flames.
Believe me, most flamers are wonderful people in person. I once witnessed
a particularly nasty and personal flamewar between two LUG members. Having
lived in Venice, California, where insults are settled in ways often requiring
hospitalization for one or both parties, I expected a fistfight at the
next LUG meeting. The two got together, laughing and joking. Some of the
nastiest flamers are the nicest people. But in the end, "but he's nice
in person" does little to blunt the career trauma caused by ill-advised
You and I are nice people, but nice people flame unless they affirmatively
guard against it. Here's how not to flame...
The preceding can pretty much prevent flame wars. But there are many smaller
issues that should be remembered:
Never get personal. Never say "you're an idiot", "you're a hypocrit", or
even "you're wrong". No matter how true the statement, it's almost guaranteed
to generate a heavy handed response that will just get you madder. Instead,
say "my experience has been that..." or "you're right, although in the
case of (whatever) I've found it helpful to...". Move the focus from people
to technology, or whatever (impersonal) subject is being discussed.
Never get sarcastic. Anyone smart enough to receive email is smart
enough to recognize sarcasm for the insult it is, but not necessarily smart
enough to keep a cool head in his or her response.
Never get emotional in a negative way. Even going on a Linux list and saying
"BILL GATES IS A CROOK WHO SHOULD BE IMPRISONED FOR LIFE" could generate
an angry reply from someone who doesn't like non-technical noise, which
in turn could be countered by a counterresponse from someone completely
different, stating that anyone who doesn't believe gates is a crook is
a total idiot...
Never threaten anyone on mailing lists. Getting shot can sidetrack your
career. So can getting sued.
Never use all caps for any more than a few words. Doing so enrages a large
portion of the online population, risking a flame war.
Never send an email when you're angry. It's almost certain to emphasize
anger over reason, leading to an even more irrational response.
Always count to 10 before sending an email you think might be negative.
Chances are you'll rethink it into something less inflammatory.
Always remember that if someone's posting inappropriate material, chances
are others are offended also, and it's likely that suggestions to the list
moderator can get the inappropriate posts, or their posters, banned.
Do not use HTML email or fonts unless you're absolutely sure all recipients
can handle it and like it. People using text only email clients can get
pretty riled at the inconvenience of HTML email, and they might just flame
you. Even if you don't flame them back, someone else might come to your
defense with a personal insult...
Never attach graphic files or other large files to your email, unless all
recipients have requested it. Imagine the response of someone on a 28.8
modem after receiving a couple megabytes worth of graphic files. If you
want to show off pictures, put them on a web site and email the URL so
those who want to see them can do so at their leisure.
When emailing, remember that many recipients receive hundreds of emails
a day. If yours requires any extra handling it will be ignored or worse.
Unsolicited attachments, no matter how small, are usually a bad idea. They
require extra work to be viewed by the recipient.
Do not email any kind of executable file or macro. Such virus transmitters
are considered extremely bad form.
Don't go on a mailing list and request that answers be emailed specifically
to you. If you don't have time to check the mailing list, you can be sure
the people doing the answering don't have time to educate one person at
Do not criticize those on a mailing list for not answering your question
the last time. Instead, evaluate your last message to ascertain why it
didn't merit an answer.
Always use a smile character :-) when kidding around. Remember the recipient
can't see you smiling when you type it, and might wrongly construe your
kidding as a serious insult.
Doing Business Through Email
Next time you're in the bookstore, check out Samba Unleashed. Then ponder
the fact that over 90% of the communication leading to the creation of
that book was done via email. Authors were found and recruited, contracts
were negociated, chapters and graphics were submitted, editor queries were
sent and returned via email. Email was used to ask and answer questions
on writing style and technical details.
For those who know how to use it, email is an ideal way of doing business.
Unlike the phone, it doesn't interrupt. Unlike a voicemail message, it's
electronically searchable and takes up little space. It's small enough
to make it practical to keep it forever. Unlike snailmail it's fast, and
it's immediately storable in the world's most efficient file cabinet, the
The very sparseness of email makes it effective for those knowing its
use. Without fonts, text attibutes and pictures you can get right down
to the task of writing. No more trying to make yourself "look like a big
corporation". Everyone, from the Fortune 500 honcho down to the guy who
cleans the floors in the 5 man business, uses text email. Oh sure, a few
people use all sorts of fonts and attributes. But these tend to be spammers.
Or raw newbies trying to impress with decorative junk. But those of us
needing fast and efficient communication for our livelihood use primarily
text email. And we always will. Because text email is much faster than
dictating the email so a secretary can format it in pretty html.
Email enables the verbally challenged to finally make the money they
deserve. Take me for example. Verbally, I'm not particularly "quick on
the uptake". After every discussion, I think of 10 "I should have said"s.
Invariably I'm left behind. I don't think as fast as others.
But often I think deeper. And more accurately. With email, I can take
the time to say it right, and often come out ahead of the fast talkers.
There are many, many more like me. With email we're finally experiencing
the success we've always been capable of.
And Eleven Years Pass
Everything written above this section was written in 2001 or before. Everything below it was written in 2012 or after.
Here are some of the new issues I've seen pop up between 2001 and 2012:
A discussion of these follows.
- Incorrect amount of quoted text
- Inappropriate top-posting
- Inappropriate HTML email
- Meaning-stifling grammar mistakes
- Non-use of filters
- I'm not on the list, so please reply me separately
- Discussion type mailing lists defaulting to reply to individual
Incorrect Amount of Quoted Text
Don't you wish people would trim their replies? Nothing is more
obnoxious than a two word "me too" response bolted onto 2000 words of
quoted text. Except, perhaps, for these guys who insist on getting the
digest version, and then post a reply and leave all the unrelated fluff
in there, and of course leave the subject line saying "Re: [MyLUG]
MyLUG Digest, Vol 113, Issue 37".
And then there are the "we don't need no damned context" types. Don't
you just love when a responder to a long email thread deletes all
quoted text and just says "You're absolutely right, that's the way we
should do it!" Who is absolutely right? We don't know. What is the way we should do it? We don't know. What was the thought process? We just don't know.
I've actually taken the time to ask no-context posters to please quote
enough quoted text that a meaning can be construed. You know what they
told me? They told me that the context is in other email in that
thread, and that's enough. In other words, they're saying that you
should take special pains to remember everything in the threads in
which they participate, or else go back through the thread to figure it
out. Geez, they really are in love with themselves, I thought it was
just a summer thing!
It's pretty simple. Quote enough text to give context to your replies. No more, and no less.
You like top posting?
You're a fool!
> What did Jeff say to the teacher?
>> Jeff sassed off the teacher.
>>>> Jeff got expelled.
>>>>> So what happened in school today?
Had you going for a second, didn't I? :-)
This is just one of many examples in which inappropriate top-posting causes confusion.
Notice I said inappropriate
top-posting. In an email flurry between two people on a known subject,
top-posting may be alright. It might even be essential if it's
important to keep all context for legal reasons, and have responses be
completely separate for legal reasons.
But on an email discussion list, where threads can get eight responses
deep by six different people, top posting is just plain wrong. Top
posting hides who said what. It puts things in reverse order, like the
example at the beginning of this section. And when top-posting gets
mixed up with bottom-posting and/or interleaved posting, all
understandability is lost. Bottom posting and interleaved posting
coexist perfectly, but throw some top posting in there and all hell
breaks loose. Top-posting conflicts with both bottom-posting and
interleave-posting. Top-posting plays nice with nobody.
If the question were just top posting or bottom posting, perhaps it
could be considered a mere matter of preference, an acquired taste. But
factor in that top posting ruins interleaved posting, probably the most
accurate and understandable way to have a complex discussion, it's
clear that top posting doesn't belong on an email discussion list.
The past couple years have brought a brand new excuse for top-posting: "My smartphone automatically top posts!"
So fine, they can cut and paste. Or if the smartphone can't do that
(and how smart is a phone if it can't), they can put a different email
client on it. And then there's this: with its slow typing speed, why
would a phone be used for email any more complex than "yes, I'll be
It's this simple: Top-posting on email discussion lists tends to make the flow and context of the discussion inscrutable.
Inappropriate HTML Email
I'm not sure there's ever an appropriate non-spam use for HTML email,
but it certainly doesn't belong on email lists or sent to anyone who
doesn't know you well. First, it's a security risk to open HTML email.
Next, it usually takes extra steps to open an HTML email. Third, some
email clients can't even read HTML email. If you really need the
formatting HTML can give you, why not make a web page and email a text
link to that web page?
Meaning-Stifling Grammar Mistakes
There's a special place in hell for these guys who capitalize nothing
and don't use punctuation. Yeah, you know what they mean, or you can
figure out what they mean after a couple re-readings, but if you're
busy, that's time better spent in other ways. No caps, no punctuation
people are just time-suckers.
We all misspell things. Heck, there are probably some misspellings in
this document. But some people write three misspellings to a sentence,
causing your reading to slow to a crawl as you go back and forth trying
to ferret out meaning.
If you're like most busy people today, you get 500 non-spam emails per
day, and you don't have the time to read text obfuscated by deliberate
and accidental grammar atrocities. Some people just don't understand
Non-Use of Filters
Life's too short for conflict. If you don't like someone, filter out
their email. Most email clients have filters, and certainly you can use
procmail to filter people out (here's how). Personally, I've found my life to be much happier after filtering out people who caused me conflict.
I'm Not On the List, So Please Reply Me Separately
Another guy who really is in love with himself. This guy's time is so
important he doesn't have ten minutes to subscribe to the list, but he
expects multiple people to take the extra time to remember to copy him
on the email? And what this guy's really asking you to do is train one
person at a time. You're too busy for that. Do what I do -- even if you
know the answer, ignore him.
Discussion Type Mailing Lists Defaulting to Reply to Individual
If the mailing list is to promote discussions, instead of just an
announcement list, then typically everyone's ideas feed each other, the
sum becomes greater than the whole, and a knowledge chain reaction
ensues. Defaulting to "post to sender" is like putting a nuclear
reactor's control rods all the way in. The knowledge chain reaction
fizzles. Reply to individual makes it necessary for the sender to take
special steps to reply to the list -- special steps often forgotten by
busy people with 500 emails per day, most of which come from mailing
lists that do the right thing and default to reply to list.
Tell me one more time just so I understand, why in the world
would one reply to an individual on a discussion type mailing list
except about specifics of a job application or unflattering gossip?
Some folks say it should default to the individual sender in order to
prevent embarrassing personal posts to everyone. Well, the few times
one replies to a discussion list with private information, the person
who has been around the block a few times makes a special mental effort
to make sure it's not to the list. Most go so far as to also write
OFFLIST in the subject. I go farther. If I were to reply individually
to a GoLUG post whose subject contained [GolugTech], I'd split it to
look like [Go OFFLIST lugTech], so that it won't go into a folder set
to reply to list.
Once the "post to individual" fans see they've been proven wrong on the practicality front, they invariably trot out the old "Reply-To" Munging Considered Harmful
web essay. This essay mentions RFCs 822 and 1123. But he mentions them
just to say email handling is tricky, not that they say anything about
changing the original Reply To. What this essay does, over and over
again, is say that if you had a really, really good email client like
the author's beloved Elm, we could all live happily in a default "reply
to individual" universe. And says nothing about the fact that in the
practical world, this default is a discussion killer.
And of course there's the more modern “Reply-To” Munging Still Considered HarmfuL. Really.
web essay. Here, based on RFC 2822's text, the author concludes that
"The IETF has spoken, and if you violate their standard and munge your
Reply-To header fields you're just creating problems for everybody." But the IETF's actual words were:
|When the "Reply-To:" field is
present, it indicates the mailbox(es) to which the author of the
message suggests that replies be sent. In the absence of the
"Reply-To:" field, replies SHOULD by default be sent to the mailbox(es)
specified in the "From:" field unless otherwise specified by the person
composing the reply.
The word SHOULD is defined in RFC 2119:
word, or the adjective "RECOMMENDED", mean that there may exist valid
reasons in particular circumstances to ignore a particular item, but
the full implications must be understood and carefully weighed before choosing a different course.
The word SHOULD means there may exist valid reasons to send the reply
other than to the sender. In fact, I can think of no better reason than
to facilitate discussion on a discussion list. When ignoring a
particular item, the full implications must be understood and carefully
weighed. OK, there are thousands of mailing lists defaulting to reply to list,
and the world hasn't ended. Some people have accidentally posted
publicly when their intent was private, but not that many and I've
never seen it to anyone's detrement. So it's just hyperbole to say that
when I tell Mailman to send replies to the list, that I'm "violating
the IETF's standard."
Bottom line, if you want a good, functioning, discussion list in which
folks using a wide variety of email clients can participate, default
your list to reply to list.
Email can skyrocket your career, or torpedo it. The choice is entirely
yours, based on your decision whether to communicate clearly and factually,
or to criticize, whine and insult. Email is not private. It never has been,
it never will. The recipient can send it to someone else. If sent to a
mailing list or some other large entity, it's entirely likely your message
will be archived and submitted to search engines. The email you write today
very well might still be public knowledge 10 years from now.
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