Cognitive Daily

One of my pet peeves is when I respond carefully to someone’s email and they don’t notice that I’ve addressed several points in one message. They seem to only read the first sentence or two and then move on.

This has made me curious as to how others handle important email messages to make sure their concerns are addressed. We’ve come up with a short set of questions to see if there are any commonalities about how people handle email. If there’s anything we’ve left out, make sure you let us know in the comments!

As usual, the survey will only take a minute or so of your time. You have until 11:59 p.m. U.S. Eastern Daylight Time on Wednesday, March 29 to participate (or until we have 250 responses, whichever comes first).

UPDATE: We’ve received 250 responses, so the survey is now closed. Thanks to all who participated!


  1. #1 Chad Orzel
    March 24, 2006

    Either you got 250 responses in the first three minutes, or there’s a bug in the survey– it told me the survey is closed, and I should come back next week.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    March 24, 2006

    Oops! Forgot to open the survey. Try it again now…

  3. #3 Eric Irvine
    March 24, 2006

    I must say I rather like Gmail; it groups messages together as a conversation, which makes it easier to communicate multiple topics with somebody else.

  4. #4 Peter Hollo
    March 24, 2006

    Part of the problem here, I think, is the sortof inescapable gravity of “how other people do it”. Obviously (Obviously!) quoting the relevant part of a multi-part message and replying below it is the best way to reply; however, because of the way Outlook (and indeed Thunderbird) dump the quoted text at the bottom, most people just dash off a reply above the quote. This no doubt also contributes to the incredibly rude way that people will only respond to one point from one’s email, seemingly ignoring the rest.
    (No doubt sometimes just being too busy is an acceptable excuse. But this by no means covers most times people do this.)

    If I reply with my responses placed under each relevant bit of someone’s email, they’ll often just dump my whole reply quoted underneath their reply back. I’ve even been told by a friend that it’s terribly confusing to reply in the segmented manner, which I find baffling – it’s just so much clearer! So I’m fascinated to see the results of this survey!

  5. #5 Carolyn
    March 24, 2006

    Peter – I’m going to have to disagree with you here. When I ask several questions in one email, I too find it confusing when responses are placed within my previously written email. I don’t like to waste my time re-reading what I’ve already written – I remember what my questions are because I wouldn’t have written them in the first place if they weren’t important. Trying to figure out where one person’s email starts and stops seems like a waste of time.

    However, I understand that we all have our own preferences, so it will be interesting to see what the majority decides here. Seeing as customer service is paramount in business, I suppose in this case I’ll have to conform! Interesting survey – keep up the good work!

  6. #6 RinzeWind
    March 24, 2006

    Carolyn: however, I find that reading some (not all!) of my quoted text helps putting the answer in context. Of course, this is useful if the person replying to my email has edited the message and has kept only the relevant bits in the response. I find the quotation marks (> in most e-mail clients) quite useful to inmediately know where the response starts and stops.

  7. #7 Tim
    March 25, 2006

    So it doesn’t mess up the flow of reading.
    > How come?
    > > I prefer to reply inline.
    > > > What do you do instead?
    > > > > No.
    > > > > > Do you like top-posting?

  8. #8 Petri
    March 25, 2006

    I also like the way Gmail groups related messages into conversations – it makes inbox less cluttered. Furthermore, I group most of my messages with gmails filters and labels.

  9. #9 Scott Reynen
    March 25, 2006

    I predict a strong correlation between email frequency and dislike of top-posting.

  10. #10 Gordon Worley
    March 25, 2006

    I wasn’t expecting the question about BCC ethicality. I generally operate under the assumption that anything you write might get around to anyone else, so I don’t find the idea of BCCs unethical in any case. Same for forwarding without notifying the sender.

    One thing not addressed in this study is e-mail writing style. For example, do you tend to write more formally or more casually in e-mail? And how much do you tend to write in e-mails (just a couple sentences; novel)? Maybe e-mail writing style is something for a future study.

  11. #11 Claw
    March 25, 2006

    Gordon: That’s a good point about the writing style. For some reason, I tend to write very formally with e-mail (and forum posts such as this) and quite informally during IM conversations (no capitalization, substituting ‘u’ and ‘r’ for ‘you’ and ‘are’, respectively, etc.). Even though I am fully aware of this behavior on IM, it is something that I find difficult to change unless I make a big effort to conscientiously correct myself.

  12. #12 Maxine
    March 27, 2006

    I’m the person who did not understand the question about quotes. If you want to contact me by email for details, feel free. All best. Maxine.

  13. #13 Dave Munger
    March 27, 2006

    Don’t sweat it, Maxine. While we value all participants, with over 200 responses, I don’t think your answers will significantly skew the results.

  14. #14 Cat
    March 27, 2006

    Tim: Personally, I prefer top-posting (generally speaking) but LOL!!!

  15. #15 Jaclyn
    March 28, 2006

    Most of my life is in e-mail, I think! 🙂 For me, top-posting vs. inline comments vs. bottom-posting varies according to:

    1- Number of points being made or questions being asked. My primary mail client (Apple Mail) colors the quoted text, so I find inline comments very natural for certain types of comments. However, I will sometimes note at the top of the mail that comments follow.

    2- How long ago the original message was sent. If it is within the past day, I figure you know what you sent me, and I top-post. This keeps the recipient from having to scroll to the bottom for the new stuff, but it also keeps the original for future reference.

    To be honest, I rarely bottom-post in e-mail. If I do, I’ve generally edited the original e-mail down to a very short segment.

    And I agree with Gordon. Anything that you wouldn’t feel ethically wrong about forwarding to someone (mainly because of a breach of confidence) is fair game for a BCC. A good BCC can also be an excellent CYA, IMHO. 😀

  16. #16 D.
    August 19, 2008

    I haven’t seen the results of the survey but I find that ‘pet peeve’ quite familiar. I believe it’s a personal trait of people dealing with an uncanny amount of e-mails per day. That’s why at my workplace we’ve developed the one-topic-per-e-mail strategy, with 4 or 5 e-mails in a row to the same recepient. Primitive, yet full-proof.

  17. #17 Dave Munger
    August 19, 2008


    Results are here. I should probably put links from the survey post to the results once they’re up, but that would require, you know, actual work.

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