I've been noticing for a while now that a lot of email subject lines are kind of uninformative about tone, and sometimes about content as well.
(Note: This is not in reaction to any particular recent emails; don't worry, I'm not complaining about anything any of y'all have sent me. Just general musings accumulated over the past several months.)
Say I'm writing a note to someone to thank them for something they said about brachiosaur habitats in a blog entry. Here are some possible subject lines I could use:
- [blank—nothing on subject line]
- Your blog
- funny stuff
- Backiosars [or other one-word misspelling]
- Entry re "Brachiosaur habitat"
- Thank you for the brachiosaur entry!
There are also lots of other possibilities, of course.
But my point is that half of those subject lines don't give any hint as to the content of the email, and most of them don't give any hint as to the tone or the emotional content. Only the last one gives any real sense of what the message says.
Half of those subject lines look like spam to me. If I received an email from a stranger with one of those spamlike subject lines, I might well delete it unread. If it's from a friend, I would probably read it, but I would be uncertain what it was about.
(I also talked about spamlike subject lines in email a couple of years ago in my entry on contacting strangers about old web pages.)
And even the nonspamlike ones are mostly not ideal. A couple of them suggest to me that the emails are likely to be neutral or even negative in tone. (For example, if I see a lowercase "thanks" with no punctuation, depending on my mood, I might worry that it's sarcastic. An exclamation mark can go a long way toward conveying tone; seeing the subject line "Hi!" generally makes me happy, while seeing the subject line "hi" is more likely to make me nervous.)
A related kind of thing can happen in responses. If I send you a note with subject line "My theory about brachiosaurs and the modern world" in which I espouse a pet theory that I'm worried you may be dismissive of, and you write back with the standard response subject line "Re: My theory about brachiosaurs and the modern world," I may be kind of nervous about the content of your response.
Or, say my note had the subject line "Do you like me?" and your response has the subject line "Re: Do you like me?" Nerve-wracking.
In such cases, it might be kinder to the recipient to change the subject line of the response to say something like "Great theory about brachiosaurs!" or "Yes, I like you!"
I think I picked up this idea from my friend L, who used to often change the subject line of responses entirely—I would send her a nervous/hesitant note, and she would respond with a subject line like "That all sounds great" or "No problem" that would make it immediately obvious what the tone and gist of her response was.
I confess that I found that a little bit offputting at first, because it didn't obey the traditional "Re" rule of email response subject lines and made it harder to track mail threads. But it was a huge relief to not have to stress about what might be in the email. Of course, it might've been less of a relief if the subject and content hadn't been cheerful and friendly—a subject line like "I'm mad at you and here's why" may make me more nervous rather than less. But at least the (gist of the) content wouldn't be a surprise.
An aside re the differing user interfaces of different mail software:
Unfortunately, changing subject lines over the course of a conversation means losing Gmail threading. Gmail considers all messages with the same subject line (modulo an initial "Re") to be part of the same "conversation," and those with a different subject line to be a different conversation. This is one of the things that bugs me most about Gmail, but nobody asked me to make design decisions about Gmail. Anyway, I imagine that a lot of Gmail users will be annoyed by my suggestion to change subject lines, and if I used Gmail I probably would be too.
Gmail also displays the first few words of the message content (plenty of other mailers do various versions of this too), which often takes the mystery out of the subject line; that can be a good thing or a bad thing, but again at least it means the content isn't so much of a surprise. But my mailer displays only subject lines, not content, until I explicitly open the message.
Anyway, I apologize to Gmail users for my recommendations about subject lines. But for me, it's worth losing threading to have more accurate information about content.
Changing subject lines to accurately reflect content can also be useful on mailing lists; for example, a message thread with subject line "Congratulations to Aloysius!" may get ignored by some members of the list, so if someone responds to that thread with a note about a change of date and time for an important meeting, information may not reach its intended recipients. Changing the subject line to "Important change of meeting time!" may get more attention.
(Conversely, if a posting to a mailing list is on-topic for the thread, then it may be a good idea to just leave the subject line alone; threading in a fifteen-person extended conversation is more of a big deal, imo, than threading in a two-person two-message exchange.)
Which reminds me that it's also a good idea to provide urgency info in subject lines. I tend to use the phrase "Time-sensitive" in subject lines to indicate that a decision or comment has to be made relatively soon, or by a particular date; or "Urgent" to indicate that time is very short and/or the topic is very important.
Anyway. I'm still not very good at this; my usual impulse is to use a neutral-tone subject line that states the general topic of the email. But I'm trying to train myself to more often use subject lines that more accurately reflect the content and tone of messages.