3 ways our awesome habits get us into trouble

September 3rd, 2009 in Career

Those of us that spend a lot of time in email have developed a lot of habits that make us more efficient. They work really well when the people we are working with also do them. But lately I’ve been encountering situations where they misfire. For example:

Good habit: Replying in the message.

IStock_000000899581XSmall When replying to an email, we tend to leave most of the conversation intact and we insert our comments where appropriate. That way you keep the context. If you have a lot of emails conversations you are following, or if new people join the conversation, that is essential. Otherwise you have to go back and read all the old mail, remember the conversation and piece it together. It would take me forever to read mail that way.

IStock_000000899602XSmall Problem: I recently had a case where someone was asking for help. When another person wrote back some nice ideas and thoughts, the person asking for help never responded. When I asked him why not, he told me he hadn’t seen any ideas. He opened the mail, but since there was nothing at the top and it looked like just his original mail was in there, he assumed there was no response. He didn’t scroll and look for the answers.

Solution: Always start a new thread with a greeting or header and be sure to say something like “My comments are embedded below.”

Good Habit: CC’ing someone who needs help.

IStock_000000899581XSmall When forwarding someone’s question to the mailing list or to another person, we cc them so that they can see all the responses and ask follow up questions. (Otherwise we’d have to watch the responses and forward them or summarize and forward back to the original person.)

IStock_000000899602XSmall Problem: People reply back to the mailing list or to you without cc’ing the person. Sometimes this happens because they don’t notice that someone is cc’ed. Sometimes it happens because they are “shy” and want to make sure their answer is something you are looking for. Sometimes it happens because they see you as the authority figure to report to.

Solution: Explicitly ask people to reply to all or “reply to Bob” with ideas. (And I realize that all my solutions require more typing and more work. If you’ve got better ones, please let me know!)

Good Habit:  Putting information in wikis (and expecting others to update it)

IStock_000000899581XSmallWe put information into wikis so that people can correct it and update it themselves.

IStock_000000899602XSmall Problem: People email you back with corrections and never put them in the wiki. So you have to continuously update the wiki.

Solution: Write back and say, that’s great, can you add it to the wiki please? (Note that this only seems to work 30% of the time, so I’m open to better suggestions. I think the main problem is they already answered your question so now there’s one more step they need to do.) Maybe a better solution would be to say in your original mail, “Please update the wiki directly – don’t email me updates” but then you might shut off discussion. Sometimes people email you the updates so that the group can discuss them.

What other good habits don’t work well when the other person isn’t aware of them? What other solutions do you have for making good habits work with those that aren’t aware of them. (Without trying to change the other person’s habits.)

13 Responses to “3 ways our awesome habits get us into trouble”

  1. I would like to point out to http://www.freebsd.org/doc/en/articles/mailing-list-faq/etiquette.html containing the rules of behavior on mailing lists :) Top posting is NOT a good thing to do.

  2. stormy says:

    Agreed, top posting is not a good thing, but pointing out that there is more to your message (to someone who may not be familiar with mailing lists) is a good practice. You could just start with a “Hi Pierre-Luc,” so they know you are responding.

  3. Mats Taraldsvik says:

    from Pierre-Luc’s link above :
    A: Because it reverses the logical flow of conversation.
    Q: Why is top posting frowned upon? :)
    What do you do when replying to an email with top posting, though? Wouldn’t replying in-line to both be even more confusing?

  4. stormy says:

    Hi Mats,
    I’m not sure I follow your comment.
    I agree the replying in line is what you should do. I agree top posting is not a good idea. (I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my mail if everyone did that.)
    But if you are replying to someone who is not likely to know that (or if you don’t know them) – it’s probably best to give them some clue at the top of the post that there is more to the mail inline.
    Stormy

  5. stormy says:

    > What do you do when replying to an email with top posting,
    > though? Wouldn’t replying in-line to both be even more
    > confusing?
    I’d vote for replying in line. You can try to teach good habits by example …
    Stormy

  6. Despite my Debian-affiliation, I agree with your ideas.
    In the context of a project like Debian, where we deal with a large volume of mails, have archives, and assume from all participants a reasonable level of experience, as well as availability of appropriate tools to deal with the volume, it’s necessary to have guidelines that reflect these practices. Then, including the entire message (or thread) in your reply is definitely not wanted (just think about the data a typical Debian discussion would generate).
    I would welcome a CC-policy on Debian lists, as opposed to the “do not CC subscribers unless asked explicitly” rule we have now, but I have ways to deal with either and make sure that I don’t miss messages. After all, there are easy-to-use tools to deal with duplicates.
    On the other hand, it does mean that the direct CC reaches you before the mailinglist post, and if you just weed duplicates, this causes mails to show up in your inbox rather than in the mailinglist folder. That may be a matter of preference.
    However, when dealing with normal people — those who do not send/receive hundreds of messages a day, and who might not reply the same day by default — when dealing with those people, I think what you propose is entirely reasonable, but only if punishment by tar&feather for top-posters becomes globally acceptable and sanctioned by the UN. ;)

  7. Guyou says:

    IMHO, top posting is nor GOOD nor BAD, it’s just depending context.
    For example, if you just want to reply with an aknowledge (for example “OK” or “Agree with you” or “Done”) then top posting is really the good solution because your reader will only have a single line to read. Furthermore, its email client will certainly display the first line before opening the mail.
    For more complex replies, top posting is not really good. In my office, we usally keep some lines at the top like:
    -=-=-=-=-=
    Hi People,
    Please, find comment inside your mail.
    > …..
    comment
    > …..
    other comment
    -=-=-=-=-=
    This way, even quick readers wont miss that the message is a reply.

  8. Mats Taraldsvik says:

    Will anyone learn best practices if I/we don’t bring them to notice, though?

  9. stormy says:

    I think most of my example solutions would eventually teach people …

  10. Mats Taraldsvik says:

    I will attempt a proper explanation. :) What I am worried about, is that if I reply inline to both posters in my example below, the email is harder to read compared to me just top posting.
    ## example
    Hi,
    I am the second poster
    I agree with your first point..
    I disagree with your second point..
    > Hi,
    > I am the first poster
    > My first point
    > My second point

  11. stormy says:

    Mats,
    I think refering to first and second point without giving the reference (by quoting it above) is harder to read. But we’d probably need some real examples to really tell.

  12. Tack says:

    I prefer top-posting to people who start with pages of quoted text and then bottom post a paragraph. Frankly the latter is far, far more annoying. At least there are arguments in favor of top-posting, but there is no excuse to make someone scroll through pages of quoted, likely previously read email to get to the point.
    Of course the correct way is to prune your quoted text to only the sentences needed to correctly establish context, then reply under that. Pruning QRT sadly is becoming a lost art.

  13. puck says:

    I totally agree with your solutions to replying in the message, and Cc’ing on mailing lists. Although I’d love a way to prune the Cc list automatically. Maybe mailman, et al. should do this for us.
    With regards to the wiki updates, that is much harder. Perhaps a solution might be to be able to Cc your response to the wiki, and have the email attached to the wiki page in question in some form. Then at least the conversation about that page is available so that others can then edit it later.