Cognitive Daily

Last week we asked readers to answer some questions about how they managed their email. The results are in, and boy are they … confusing. We’re having trouble identifying any clear patterns at all in email management. First of all, let’s get a sense of the scale of the problem. Here’s how respondents’ email use broke down:


Most respondents send and receive between 11 and 50 emails a day, and the vast majority — 84 percent of respondents — have non-spam email traffic of less than 50 per day. One respondent of the 251 who answered actually claims to send and receive over 1000 emails a day.

However, we were unable to uncover any patterns in email habits. Frequent emailers’ responses to the other questions were indistinguishable from those of infrequent emailers. Take a look at the responses to the question about how to handle quotations in email replies. The original question was “if you are exchanging several emails back and forth with one person, how do you handle quotes in replies?” Here’s how the responses broke down:


There were nearly as many top-quoters, who quote the original email above their reply, as bottom quoters, who prefer to reply first and keep the original message below. Some prefer to quote all the original messages in a series of emails, while others quote only relevant messages. With so many different ways of handling quotations, and no clear leader, it’s no wonder that emails often go unheeded.

Some responses showed more unanimity: 76.8 percent of emailers save all sent messages. Interesting, then, that I can recall using an email client which defaulted to deleting all sent mail.

Finally, we tossed in a wild-card question about the ethics of blind carbon copies — sending a copy of an email to another person, without the original recipient being aware of the practice. Do our respondents view this practice as ethical?


Again, little agreement, and no patterns corresponding to the other responses in the survey. But strong opinions prevailed, with a small minority suggesting this practice is always unethical. Most respondents agreed it was unethical except for mass emailings and/or routine administrative purposes. Despite this majority, 76 respondents took the time to type in other cases where they believed bccing was ethical. Half of these believed it was always ethical, but others offered a variety of additional instances: within an office, to a supervisor, to a partner, to conceal a private email address, for personal use. In short, there’s no consensus on when bccing is ethical.

This pattern seems to hold for emailing as a whole. Even though email has been around for over 30 years, and in common use for at least the last ten, there has yet to be a consensus about the best way to handle email correspondence. So perhaps it’s no surprise that sometimes email correspondents don’t meet the expectations of one or the other people involved. Perhaps it’s more surprising that email actually works as often as it does.


  1. #1 Claw
    March 31, 2006

    > One respondent of the 251 who answered actually claims to send and receive over 1000 emails a day.

    That was me. 😛 Even though I get over 1000 non-spam e-mails a day, I have rules set up so that they’re all filed automatically to the right folders. They’re all related to work, but not always necessarily directed to me, so most of the time I quickly scan the subject headers to see if I need to be involved. In most cases I can ignore them, but since they’re not technically spam, I didn’t indicate them as such.

  2. #2 catnmus
    April 1, 2006

    I think the reason there’s so little agreement is because there’s no one “right” way to use email. Several of the questions really had more to do with “how do you organize yourself”, and everyone is different. Plus, a lot of people just get used to whatever their email system does automatically for them. To then presume that “that’s how I do it” is facetious at best.
    Also, on the bcc issue, you did not even have an answer for “bcc is always ethical.” So there was a bit of implied bias, there.

  3. #3 Kelly Miller
    April 1, 2006

    I agree with catnmus — the appropriate way to handle an email varies from message message. The survey was flawed, because it assumed that there is only one right way to answer an email. In quoting, for example, I use all five listed behaviors, and I also sometimes intersperse my comments amid the quotes. How was I supposed to answer the question? Right, use “other.” But that seems a bit futile when you feel that the question itself is flawed.

    This is a general problem in surveys, I think (or at least in the ones I fill out). They get less meaningful anwers because they don’t ask the right questions.

  4. #4 Cat
    April 1, 2006

    Yeah, the survey’s a bit flawed, but it *was* Casual Friday. I had to pick the “other” option myself, and I agree that it seemed a bit futile, since the likelihood of making a big statistical impact that way was minimal.

    But, I think this is great exploratory research for those in Industrial/Organizational Psyc — like catnmus mentioned, a lot of us probably got used to one way of doing things becuase the first email program we used was set up that way. It’s something email developers should be aware of — they could be influencing our top- vs. bottom-quoting preferences for life!

    I think it’d be cool to look at demographics breakdown in future studies about this. For instance — are academics and professionals different in email preferences? Do students and stay-at-home parents use their email the same way? “Casual” users may be more likely to use web-based email, whereas businesses (and geeky students like me) tend to use a client like Outlook or Thunderbird.

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