About Overcome Email Overload with Eudora 5

About Overcome Email Overload with Microsoft Outlook 2000

Frequently asked questions

About the author/publisher

Press Room

World Wide Webfoot Press home

Other email material by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood:

A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email

Finding Email Addresses

Why I Don't Like Electronic Greeting Cards

Email Bibliography

Humorous looks at email:

The Dark Side of Web Publishing

Email vs. Letters

Hyphenate or not -- Email or E-mail?

Chapter 5 - Reduce the Number of Incoming Messages

Excerpted from Overcome Email Overload with Eudora 5
Copyright © 2001 Kaitlin Duck Sherwood


Organizing and prioritizing messages helps decrease the amount of time you spend on email, but reducing the number of incoming messages can save you even more time. Obviously, you want some of your email, but some messages are unnecessary. Junk email is one form of unnecessary email, but even non-junk messages can waste your time.

For example, mailing lists, while useful, can generate an enormous amount of traffic. Off-topic postings, arguments, and just plain boring mailing list messages waste your time.

Sometimes, email from strangers doesn't waste as much time as messages from people you know. After all, you can figure out very quickly if a message is junk email. You might even be able to use filters to get rid of it, as shown in File Junk. On the other hand, you might need to read all messages from your boss through to the end.

This chapter shows how to reduce the number of these three types of messages: junk email, mailing lists, and nuisance messages from acquaintances. Some of the techniques require some extra effort at first but will save you time in the end.

Reduce the Number of Junk Email Messages

Junk email is very annoying. If you don't get junk email now, consider yourself lucky--and take steps to make sure you don't start getting junk email. If you already get junk email, you might want to start over with a new email account, then keep that account away from junk emailers.

Your company's Information Technology department might have a way of getting rid of junk email before it ever gets to your mailbox, saving you download time. You might need to ask for the service, however. Find your company's email system administrator and ask, "Can I get a spam filter on my account?"

The best thing you can do to keep from getting junk email is keep your email address private. Don't put your email address on a Web page, don't put messages up on any of the public Internet discussion forums, and don't give your email address out to retailers.

    Tip: This is such an important point that I will repeat it to make sure you see it: Keep your work email address private!!

If keeping your email address private would interfere too much with your use of the Internet (or if your email address is already on junk email lists), consider getting a second email account. As mentioned in Use Multiple Accounts to Group Messages, there are now a number of services that will give you free accounts. You can use one account for public contact and one for private contact, effectively separating your email into two groups: junk and non-junk.

Reduce the Number of Mailing List Messages

Mailing lists are a great way to communicate with people who have shared interests and goals. However, they can lead to an enormous amount of email traffic. Filters can help enormously by grouping messages from a mailing list into their own mailbox, but that might not be enough. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to save time with mailing lists.

Mailing List Administration

Before reading more about mailing lists, you need to understand that a piece of software--not a human being--administers most mailing lists. This software (called a list server, listserv, or listbot ) allows people to join or leave the list without causing work for anybody else. Yes, there is a human being--the list owner --who has control over the list server, but he or she is not guaranteed to pay any attention to the list server. The list owner might not even read the list messages. It is thus important to know how to communicate with the list server.

When you join or subscribe to a list, the first message usually gives instructions for how to communicate with the list server. It will tell you what options you have and what the list server's email address is. (Usually the list server's address is different from the address you use to reach subscribers. The subscribers are reached by the listname address .)

Be sure to save that first message in a safe place. If you occasionally delete large blocks of old messages, be sure to move that first message into a special mailbox that you don't ever delete. (I put mine in a mailbox with other confirmation messages from automated services.)

If you subscribed to a mailing list by sending an email message, the most important thing to remember is the list server's email address. Putting the list server's email address into your address book will help you find it in the future.

If you subscribed to a mailing list from a Web page, the most important thing to remember is where that Web page is. That page should take you to information about how to communicate with the list server. You should send yourself email with the location of the Web page and file that message someplace safe. (You could bookmark it in your Web browser, but if you have lots of bookmarks, you might have a hard time finding it.)

When to Unsubscribe

There are several situations where you should unsubscribe from your mailing lists:

  • If your email takes up too much of your time, ask yourself if you really need to be on all your mailing lists. In particular, if the list has an archive on a Web site, you might want to look at the archive occasionally instead of letting messages from the list fill a mailbox.
  • When you go on vacation, you might want to temporarily unsubscribe. You will probably want to spend your first day back from vacation going through only your hundreds of work-related messages, not also your hundreds of mailing list messages.
  • You should unsubscribe when you change email addresses. Unsubscribe using your old address and resubscribe with your new address. Many list servers look at the return address to decide whether to honor a removal request. If your return address has changed since you subscribed, the list server might not honor your requests. (This is an appropriate security feature. You don't really want your worst enemy to alter your mailing list subscriptions, do you?)
  • If all the email from your old account is forwarded to the new account, you could be stuck with the mailing list forever.
How to Unsubscribe

How to unsubscribe from a mailing list is not as obvious as you would hope. There are many different kinds of list servers, each with a slightly different set of commands. This is why you should save the instructions! Three years from now, you might want to unsubscribe and not remember how.

You could be lucky: list servers frequently put unsubscribe instructions in every message. For example, all messages that go through Yahoo Groups currently have a header with the unsubscribe address, like this:

List-Unsubscribe: <mailto:moo-unsubscribe@yahoogroups.com>

Other Internet distribution lists frequently add unsubscribe instructions at the end of the message. Some others put the unsubscribe address in a header. Look at the top and bottom of recent messages before doing anything else.

Get Help from the List Server

If you have lost the original instructions but still have the list server's address, first try getting help from the list server. Commands like info and help followed by the name of the list might get you more information. Nonsense like slkdfj might also convince the list server that you need help. A message like this will probably get something useful in response:

To: lists@catfloss.org

Subject: help floss-talk

help floss-talk

info floss-talk

alsdjfaj floss-talk

If nothing else, the response will probably tell you the correct way to ask the list server for information.

If that doesn't tell you how to unsubscribe, you can try a few of the common ways to unsubscribe. Usually you unsubscribe by putting one of the following key words in the body and/or the subject header of a message to the list server:




Sometimes you need to put your email address after the name of the list. For example:

To: lists@catfloss.org

Subject: unsubscribe floss-talk

unsubscribe floss-talk mabel@flossrecycling.com


Try several different unsubscribe messages. After no more than three or four tries, you'll probably succeed in either unsubscribing or getting directions on how to unsubscribe.

How Not to Unsubscribe

As mentioned earlier, the list server has a different address than the listname address, so sending a removal request to the list name address usually does nothing except make you look really stupid. Not only are "please remove me" messages a way to lower people's opinion of your intelligence, but you might also get swamped with incoming messages. Fifty people might explain the proper way to unsubscribe--and they might not all be polite.

If you can't remember how to unsubscribe from a mailing list and have misplaced the instructions, at least apologize if you ask the list subscribers how to unsubscribe. You might still look like an idiot, but you will at least look like a polite idiot.

I am on a mailing list where instructions on how to unsubscribe are at the bottom of every message. People get really annoyed when they see messages like this:

Subject: unsubscribe

To: floss-talk@catfloss.org

Hi - I'm terribly sorry, but I can't seem to find the instructions on how to unsubscribe from this mailing list. Could someone please send me the directions?



** To leave the list send a message TO **

** lists@catfloss.org **

** with the subject "unsubscribe floss-talk". **

** **

** Messages on the Cat Flossing Research List are those **

** of the individual members and do not represent the **

** International Cat Flossing Association. **

** Questions? - Contact list@catfloss.com **



Switch to Mailing List Digests

If you get a lot of messages from a mailing list, you might want to get the messages in a digest --a single email message that combines all the messages sent to the list in one day or one week. Getting a digest won't reduce the amount of text that you have to read, but it might make the messages easier to deal with. If you can't restrain yourself from reading any message when it appears in your inbox, this might keep your day from getting too fragmented.

Unfortunately, there are three potential disadvantages to digests:

  • Digests are very long, so they require a lot of scrolling.
  • It is harder to reply to the author of one of the messages in the digest. (Selecting "reply" will send a reply to either the entire list or to nobody.) You'll need to copy and paste the author's address into a new message's To: header.
  • You can't skip individual messages as easily.

With some, but not all, digests, Eudora for Mac OS can burst them--split them into their individual messages. You need to put a checkmark in the box in Special -> Settings... -> Attachments next to Receive MIME digests as attachments . Some digest messages will then appear as attachments. Double-clicking on the attachment will put all the messages from that digest into their own mailbox, creating the mailbox if needed.

As I mentioned earlier, this doesn't work for all digests. This isn't exactly Eudora's fault: different mailing list programs can (and do) assemble digests in different ways. There are, however, a few Eudora plug-ins that recognize more forms of digests than Eudora does. See


Switch to Announcement-Only Mailing Lists

If you want to stay informed of only the most important aspects of a topic, you might want to see if you can subscribe to an announcements list. Sometimes, interest groups will have two mailing lists for a particular topic: one for announcements only and one for general discussion. Announcement lists generally have many fewer messages than general discussion lists.

    Tip: Sometimes, the names of announcement lists end in -announce and the discussion lists end in -talk . Digests frequently end in -digest . For example, roses-talk@rosegardens.org is almost certain to be a general discussion list.
Switch to Moderated Mailing Lists

If a lot of the messages on a list are not useful--idiots ranting, chain letters, messages that are off-topic, and so on--you might want to switch to one with some human quality control. On some lists, a human being (called a moderator ) reads each of the messages and decides whether or not to let the message go to everyone who is subscribed. While the moderator might distribute guidelines for what he or she considers appropriate, in the end the moderator gets to decide what goes through. Because of the moderator, you won't have complete freedom of expression, but the percentage of useful messages should be higher than in an unmoderated list.

There won't always be a moderated list on the topic that interests you. If you'd like to provide a useful public service, you could volunteer to moderate a mailing list.

Reduce the Number of Messages from Acquaintances

Mailing lists can generate many messages, but you can usually wait to read and respond to them. Messages from friends and colleagues, however, need more careful attention. Reducing the number of those messages might help you more than getting rid of mailing list messages.

Write to Discourage Responses

There are a number of techniques you can use when writing messages that will make your correspondents less motivated to respond. These include

  • sending clear messages
  • writing with formality
  • making clear that you think the conversation is over
  • keeping your thanks until later
  • avoiding rhetorical questions
Write with Formality

You can affect how many responses you get to your email messages by changing how formal your writing is. People naturally use very formal language to recognize that the audience can't respond easily. For example, here are three situations where people use very formal language. In each, there is a barrier to communicating freely:

  • When addressing people with radically different status. If you and the Ambassador have tea, one of you might ask about the other's health, but both of you are socially constrained from actually discussing recent surgeries. The formal language you would use with the Ambassador reflects those social constraints.
  • When addressing an audience of the future. Politicians know that lawyers might examine their documents carefully decades or even centuries later. The original authors might not be alive then to answer questions. The formal language in legal documents is a way of showing that nobody will be able to answer questions later.
  • When addressing a large number of people. If every member of a large audience tried to comment on a speech, there would be chaos. The audience is not completely free to respond. The formal language used in speeches encourages people not to interrupt.

Intimate discussions, on the other hand, use very informal language. If you were as formal with your loved ones as with the Ambassador, they would probably wonder why you were angry! Advertisements use informal language deliberately to try to make the message seem more intimate (and therefore more trustworthy).

So be cautious about your messages' tone. If you want people to respond, be chatty and informal. If you want to discourage people from responding, send messages that are more formal.

Send Clear Messages

If your correspondents misunderstand your message, they will have to send you messages asking for clarification. You'll have to read at least one more message and write at least one more message.

Writing more understandable email is such a large and important topic that it's split into several chapters: Reduce Ambiguity, Convey Emotional Tone, and Make Messages Legible.

Use "No Reply Needed"

Email doesn't have clear and common conventions for how to end a conversation, unlike in verbal conversations. In person, body language can say, "I'm leaving now." On the telephone, people say, "goodbye" to signal the end of the call. Email is new enough that conventions to end the conversation haven't developed yet.

You can help create a new standard. I recommend showing that the conversation is at an end by saying No Reply Needed . (Why did I capitalize No Reply Needed ? Because I hope that someday people will abbreviate it NRN .)

For example:

Subject: Re: Phrockmeijer report

Alicia -


The Phrockmeijer report is on-line at



No Reply Needed.





If you put FYI in the Subject: header, that will also show that you don't need a response. Use No Reply Needed when you are pretty sure that the receiver wants the information; use FYI when you aren't sure.

Don't Thank Your Correspondents Right Away

"Thank you" and "You're welcome" are particularly uninteresting closing comments. In spoken conversations, they are in context and very brief. They are polite, gracious, and make interactions more pleasant. However, in an email conversation, it might take you a moment to figure out what a message that just says "thank you" is about.

You can discourage messages that only say, "You're welcome" by not sending messages that only say, "Thank you." If you have a question about the favor, thank your correspondent when asking your question:

Subject: Re: Phrockmeijer report

Mabel -


Thanks a bunch for telling me so promptly where I could find the report.


I'm confused about one thing, though. The report says that the floss is green. Didn't we switch to purple three weeks ago?





But unless it was an exceptional effort to get you the information, do your correspondent a favor and wait until your next message to say thanks:

Subject: Floss Expo

Mabel -


Thanks for getting me the Phrockmeijer report last week.


Jose reminded me that Floss Expo is coming up soon. Can you spare some Payroll clerks to staff the booths again?





Another thing you can do is gives thanks profusely in advance:

Subject: Re: Floss Expo

Alicia -


Yes, I think Winston and Jeff would like to work Floss Expo again. I'll ask them.


In the meantime, could you email me the latest version of our brochures so they can get up to speed?


Thanks in advance!




While I don't recommend it, some people abbreviate Thanks In Advance to TIA ; I've also seen advTHANKSance --the word "thanks" in(side) the word "advance."

Some people don't like thanking in advance. They feel that it is rude to assume that the receiver will do the favor. I agree, it is--but so is not thanking someone and so is contributing to someone's email overload by sending them messages that just say "thank you".

Avoid Rhetorical Questions

Some questions are rhetorical; you don't really want an answer. Unfortunately, without verbal and gestural signals, it is hard for people to figure out when a question is rhetorical. You're likely to get sincere answers to all your questions:

Subject: safes

> Claire --

> Have you ever seen those little safes in hotels? Please

> put some in the cafeteria for employees to keep their

> wallets and purses.


Yes, there was a safe in the closet of the hotel I stayed in last week.

You're likely to get better responses if you reword your rhetorical questions as statements:

Subject: Re: safes

Claire --


Please put some small safes -- like the ones expensive hotels sometimes have -- in the cafeteria. I want employees to have a safe place for their wallets and purses.


Discourage Third-Party Discussions

Another good strategy for reducing the amount of incoming email is to discourage your correspondents from getting into conversations with each other.

Consider the following exchange:

  • Alicia sends a message to Mabel, Jeff, and sixteen other people asking what color the brochure covers are.
  • Mabel sends a message to Alicia, Jeff, and sixteen other people saying the covers are the same green as the new logo.
  • Jeff sends a message to Mabel, Alicia, and the other sixteen saying that he hates the new logo.
  • Jeff and Alicia send messages back and forth (Cc'ing the seventeen others) arguing about whether the new logo is better than the old one.
  • Mabel and the sixteen others get annoyed at Alicia and Jeff's private argument pushing into their inboxes.

Granted, Jeff shouldn't have sent an off-topic message, but Mabel could have made it difficult for Alicia to see Jeff's message. Then Mabel (and the sixteen others) wouldn't have needed to read Alicia and Jeff's argument about the logo. This section will explain a few strategies for reducing conversations between your correspondents.

Reply to Sender Only

If Mabel had responded just to Alicia, then Jeff probably wouldn't have gotten involved in the conversation. Granted, Mabel wouldn't have had a chance to impress everyone else with her insight and wit, but perhaps that's just as well.

Being careful to respond only to the sender also can save you from the most common embarrassing email mistake: sending a message to more people than you intended. You've probably seen how dangerous this can be!

For example, suppose that Della accidentally replied to everybody--including Jessica--instead of just to Charlie with the following message.

To: Charlie Yzaguirre <charlie@electricbagpipes.com>,

Jessica Robinson <jessica@electricbagpipes.com>,

Mabel Garcia <mabel@flossrecycling.com>

From: Della.Hunt@electricbagpipes.com

Subject: Re: Friday card game

> Would you all be interested in getting together on Friday

> to play cards?


Charlie, you have got to be out of your mind to invite Jessica to play cards. That woman cheats so much that I'm amazed that she isn't in jail yet!


Reply-To-All mistakes can lead to, at best, a lot of messages telling you that you made a mistake. At worst, you'll make people angry and a flame war --an angry argument fought using email messages--could erupt. Either will eat up your time and energy.

Eudora can help you reply to the sender only. Select Special -> Settings... ->> Replying (Mac OS) or Tools -> Options... -> Replying (Windows). If you are using Mac OS, make sure that under Reply to All , the radio buttons next to When option key is down and Address Handling for Reply to All are checked. If you are using Windows, make sure that the box next to Map Ctrl-R to `Reply to All' is not checked.

Use Bcc: Instead of To: or Cc:

Reducing the number of people you send a message to isn't always possible. A lot of people might need to read your message. However, you can use Bcc: to keep your correspondents from getting into discussions with each other due to Reply-To-All mistakes.

You might have already noticed that you can see all the addresses in the To : and Cc: headers, but can't see addresses in the Bcc: header. It's not that the sender's email program sends the Bcc: list to everyone, but the receiver's software hides it; the sender's email program never sends the list. Nobody can ever see the Bcc: list except the sender.

(Note: While it is normal for Bcc: addresses to be hidden, I have to admit that there do exist a few obscure email programs that transmit the Bcc: information. This is, however, extremely uncommon--I consider it a bug in those email programs. Eudora does not send the Bcc: list.)

You can probably see that Bcc: can significantly reduce the amount of follow-up discussion. Be careful, however: Bcc: has some dangers. In particular, it is easy for people on the Bcc: list to respond to everybody (except, of course, anyone on the Bcc: list) by mistake. This can have very embarrassing consequences if the original sender was supposed to keep the message secret!

For example, suppose Wilbur uses Bcc: to pass on a secret to Tyronne and Chris:

From: Wilbur Haliburton <wilbur@flossrecycling.com>,

To: Loy Duncan <loy@flossrecycling.com>

Bcc: Tyronne Washington <tyronne@flossrecycling.com>,

Chris Olszewski <chris@flossrecycling.com>

Subject: Re: reference

Loy -


You may certainly use me as a job reference. I'm sorry

that you won't be staying with the company, but I can

understand that you want to move on.


Naturally, I will not tell anyone else about your leaving.





If Tyronne or Chris respond to everyone instead of just to Loy, Loy will learn that Wilbur didn't keep the secret. Loy would be very surprised to get this message from Chris:

From: Chris Olszewski <chris@flossrecycling.com>

To: Wilbur Haliburton <wilbur@flossrecycling.com>,

Loy Duncan <loy@flossrecycling.com>

Subject: Re: Interview

> You may certainly use me as a job reference. I'm sorry

> that you won't be staying with the company, but I can

> understand that you want to move on.


Wilbur, see if you can find out what Loy wants. If he needs more money, we can probably arrange that. I'll go up to $10K if I have to. We've gotten away with underpaying him pretty horribly in the past.





(Note that Tyronne, who Wilbur also put in the Bcc: list, will not get this message.)

It is true that Chris is the one who made the mistake of replying to everyone instead of just to Wilbur. However, Chris couldn't have made that mistake if Wilbur had sent a separate copy instead of using Bcc: .

    Tip: It is a bad idea to write down anything that you would be embarrassed for others to find out. Your co-workers might see the message over your shoulder. The receiver's co-workers might see the message on the receiver's screen. The receiver could even forward it to many people. You cannot completely control who sees your message.

If your correspondents filter messages based on whether the messages are addressed them specifically, putting their addresses in the Bcc: header might make their filters send your message into a low-priority mailbox.

How to Use Group Nicknames to Discourage Discussions

If you send a message to a group nickname that has a Full Name , your correspondents will only see the Full Name in your message, not all the addresses in the group nickname. For example, suppose that Mabel has a group nickname called honchos which has a Full Name of Hoopston Hollering Hangar Honchos . If Mabel sends a message to honchos , the receivers will see only Hoopston Hollering Hangar Honchos; in the To: header:

From: Mabel Garcia <mabel@flossrecycling.com>

To: Hoopston Hollering Hangar Honchos;

Subject: lost parachute

I can't find my parachute! Did anyone take it home after the jump last Saturday (11 Jan)?


To give a Full Name to a group nickname, fill in the box labeled Full Name on the Personal tab in the Address Book, as shown by the arrow in Figure 36.

Figure 35: Adding Full Name to a Group Nickname (Mac OS)

If you sometimes want to show all the receivers, consider having two group nicknames, one with a Full Name and one without. For example, Mabel could have one nickname honchos with a blank Full Name and another nickname invisibleHonchos that has the Full Name of Hoopston Hollering Hangar Honchos . If Mabel sends a message to honchos , then all the names and email addresses will be visible in the messages people receive. If she sends to the invisibleHonchos list, no addresses will be visible.

(Mabel doesn't need to maintain two lists. When she creates invisibleHonchos , she can put just honchos in the box marked This nickname will expand to the following address(es) . Adding someone to the honchos list will automatically add them to the invisibleHonchos list as well.)

Send Fewer Messages

One of the best ways to get fewer responses is to send fewer messages. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't send email at all. Email is a wonderful thing when used correctly! However, you should consider carefully whether your correspondents really want your message. In particular, be careful about sending anything to a large group of people. The more people who get a message, the more likely it is that someone will misinterpret the emotion, context, or meaning. You might need to read and send additional messages.

    Tip: Before you send a message to a large group of people, consider whether you would go up to a microphone to say it to that many people in an auditorium. If you wouldn't say it in front of three hundred people, don't email it to three hundred people.

There are certain types of messages that will really annoy people. The more people you send such messages to, the more likely it is that you will get messages back that tell you not to do that. The rest of this section describes messages that you probably should not send.

"Me Too"

You might have already seen the "me too" message. This is fine when there are only two people in the discussion, but not when there are hundreds:

To: abuse-L@electricbagpipes.com

Subject: Re: junk email

From: newbie@electricbagpipes.com

Tyler Spratt <tspratt@electricbagpipes.com> said:

> I think that all people who waste Internet bandwidth

> should have their access cut off forever.


Me too!


You should only write your support to the entire recipient list if you have something new to add:

To: abuse-L@electricbagpipes.com

Subject: Re: junk email

From: newbie@electricbagpipes.com

Tyler Spratt <tspratt@electricbagpipes.com> said:

> I think that all people who waste Internet bandwidth

> should have their access cut off forever.


I agree in principle, but I think a permanent banishment would be a bit extreme. Just take our... uh... *their* Web connection away for a week. That will teach them!


Otherwise, keep quiet. The second, third, and seventy-third identical "me too" messages aren't interesting.

Sometimes, someone on a mailing list will ask for your opinion or vote. In those cases, respond ONLY to the person who originally posted the message. Be clear about your vote, and put it in the subject header if possible:

To: Tyler Spratt <tspratt@electricbagpipes.com>

Subject: YES! Cut off access! (was junk email)

From: charlie@electricbagpipes.com

Tyler Spratt <tspratt@electricbagpipes.com> said:

> I think that all people who waste Internet bandwidth

> should have their access cut off forever. All those who

> are in favor, send me email and I will report the count.


I am in favor of cutting off access for anyone who wastes Internet bandwidth.


If you call for a vote, give detailed guidelines on how to vote. To save yourself some time, ask people to put their votes clearly in the subject header so that you don't have to open the message:

From: Tyler Spratt <tspratt@electricbagpipes.com>

Subject: access cut vote (was junk email)

To: abuse-L@electricbagpipes.com

I think that all people who waste Internet bandwidth should

have their access cut off forever.


If you are in favor of cutting off the access of people who waste Internet bandwidth, send me (not the whole list) email with an empty message body and the subject

YES! cut off access

If you disagree, send me email with an empty message body and the subject

NO! don't cut off access

I will tally the results and post them to this list.


You could even use a filter to sort votes into YES and NO mailboxes.

Chain Letters

Chain letters--messages that try to convince people to redistribute it widely--are a form of computer virus. They live on computers and use naive people to spread themselves, taking up time, energy, and disk space along the way.

Be particularly cautious about messages that promise easy riches. You might be liable for criminal penalties if you advertise for a Ponzi or pyramid scheme--one where later participants send money to earlier participants. Do not trust messages that say that the scheme is legal . Those promises are worth as much as it cost to send the message: not much. Check with a lawyer before getting involved in anything that could possibly be a pyramid scheme.

Even well-meaning chain letters can have unpleasant results. The oldest and best example is the Craig Shergold letter. Craig was a nine-year-old boy battling cancer. He sent out a chain letter asking people to send him postcards. They did. Craig has completely recovered, and, as of this writing, is a healthy college student. Unfortunately, thousands of postcards are still coming, causing problems for his local post office.

So while it might sound cruel to ignore the plight of some poor soul, unless you research the case enough to determine that it is legitimate and still appropriate , don't pass on a chain letter. Even if it is for a legitimate cause, it can get out of control.

If you must pass on or--yuck!--start a chain letter, at least do the following:

  • Put a date, including the year, in the middle of the letter. If you put a date at the front or back, it is likely to get accidentally removed. If you do not put in a date, it will live on past its useful lifetime.
  • Put specific information about the issue and contact information so that future recipients can easily verify it.
  • Show your name and email address prominently. If you don't believe in the cause strongly enough to put your name on it, you shouldn't send it.

Hoaxes are a type of chain letter that propagate urban legends. Some hoaxes are scary and some are funny. Common hoaxes include:

  • warnings of new forms of criminal activity
  • promotions saying a large corporation will give a large sum of money to a worthy charity if they receive a certain number of email messages
  • warnings about non-existent computer viruses
  • alerts about proposed governmental regulations or taxes

Hoaxes die if readers can investigate them easily. Thus, watch out for messages that don't have many concrete details. Most hoaxes don't include specific names of victims, perpetrators, or even investigating bodies. Hoaxes usually will not reference web pages or phone numbers that will give further information, nor will they give exact dates. Hoaxes usually do contain a lot of hysterical language and an urgent request to pass the message on to absolutely everybody that you know.

Armed with these guidelines, you should immediately suspect that the following is a hoax:

Subject: Re: Re: Re: DANGER!!!!

> >> I don't usually pass on chain letters, but this one is

> >> true! A friend of mine bought a Harik electric

> >> bagpipe to serenade his girlfriend with, and right

> >> after he plugged it in, it exploded! The blast was so

> >> strong that it broke his nose and her ribs! If you

> >> have a Harik bagpipe, take it in for a refund

> >> immediately, and tell everybody you know about the

> >> danger!


A message like the following is much more likely to be genuine:

Subject: bagpipe recall

Harik Bagpipes Corporation has found a problem with their Quicksilver bagpipes. If all the drones are blocked when the power is turned on, a feedback loop can make the bag quite hot. After approximately 30 minutes, it can explode.


Harik Bagpipes has recalled the Quicksilver model. They can be returned at their place of purchase or to Harik Bagpipes directly. (Other models are not affected by this problem.)


Our Web site has further information:




I, Charlie Yzaguirre <charlie@electricbagpipes.com>, have checked the sites mentioned. This seems to be a genuine problem as of 20 Feb 2036. Please do not pass this on unless you either know me personally or have checked the Web sites. Before you pass this on, please replace my contact information with your own.


You should investigate a story for yourself before passing it on to everyone you know. If it is a hoax, you might get a lot of messages pointing that out to you.

Affectionate Chain Messages

There is a type of self-replicating message that preys on love instead of fear, anger, greed, or pity. These messages have some uplifting content, followed by a command to send the message to people you feel warmly towards. They might look something like this:

Subject: FW: FW: Fwd: beautiful smile

>> >Your smile is beautiful!

>> >Like pentameter it whispers

>> >Delicate hurricanes of grace,

>> >Sweeter than a dream of roses.


>> >Send this message to five people who have beautiful

>> >smiles!


Despite the sender's good intentions, these types of sentimental messages are yet another form of virus.


Some people really like getting jokes by email. However, the practice is so common and widespread that sometimes people get overwhelmed by the number of jokes that they get. If a joke is so funny that you feel you must redistribute it, put HUMOR: in the Subject: header. That way, your correspondents can delete it quickly or save it for later.

    Tip: If you pass on any original material, please attribute the author. This gives credit where credit is due and allows people to find the author if they choose.
Junk Email

You probably hate junk email. So does everybody else. Sending massive amounts of unsolicited commercial email is inconsiderate and rude.

Sending junk email probably won't get you what you want, either:

  • People get so much spam now that they delete it pretty quickly. You probably won't get as many interested responses as you want.
  • Your mailbox might fill with hate email and notifications of undeliverable email.
  • You will lose your Internet account. Count on it.
  • You might be liable for civil penalties under various anti-junk email laws.
  • You might get harassed. If you give a phone number in your message, you might get thousands of people phoning to ask that you not send spam. If you have a web site, it might get attacked by anti-spam vigilantes.

Sending junk email will greatly increase the amount of email that you get--until your account gets cancelled!

Further Information on Nuisance Messages

For up-to-date information on nuisance messages, including where to find lists of current hoaxes, see


Educate Your Correspondents

Sometimes your friends and colleagues will send you inappropriate messages--chain letters, "me too" messages, and so on. If you are in a position of authority, you might find subordinates Cc'ing you on more than you care for. Usually, your correspondents mean well. However, if you don't let them know that you don't want such messages, they will probably do it again. That means more messages for you.

Your correspondents probably think they are doing you a favor, so you shouldn't be nasty about it. In fact, if you are not careful, you'll get an angry response back. Some templates for polite educational messages are in Spend Less Time on Responses.

If you get a lot of messages from inside your organization, you might want to pay close attention to Improve Your Company's Email Effectiveness. It shows how organizations can set policies and create technological aids to improve email efficiency.


To reduce the amount of email that you receive:

  • Don't give out your email address. Try not to publish it anywhere on the Internet or give it to retailers. If you feel you need a public email address, get an additional email account.
  • Keep track of how to communicate with the software. Remember that a piece of software performs most mailing list operations, not a human.
  • Unsubscribe from some of your mailing lists. Alternatively, switch to a digest, announcements-only, or moderated list.
  • Discourage responses by writing formally, explicitly mentioning that you don't need a response, and thanking in advance.
  • Discourage discussions between your correspondents by making it hard for them to see and respond to each other's messages. Whenever possible, reply to the sender only instead of to everybody, use Bcc, or use named group nicknames.
  • Send fewer messages. In particular, don't send junk--"me too" messages, messages that don't apply to most of the receivers, unsolicited advertisements, hoaxes, chain letters, and affectionate chain letters.
  • Ask your correspondents to stop sending you inappropriate messages.

Go up to Table of Contents
Go back to Chapter 4 - Move Around Your Messages Quickly
Go on to Chapter 6 - Spend Less Time on Responses