Making email subject lines more emotionally informative

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:

  1. [blank—nothing on subject line]
  2. hello
  4. Your blog
  5. funny stuff
  6. Backiosars [or other one-word misspelling]
  7. Entry re "Brachiosaur habitat"
  8. thanks
  9. 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.

3 Responses to “Making email subject lines more emotionally informative”

  1. Will Q

    My boss has a tendency to type an entire several sentence message as the subject line, with a blank body. I’m annoyed by it, but I just don’t see a politic way to say “hey, I think you’re not exactly following conventional email behavior here”….

    Another odd situation is the fundraising email, where the subject line is often the first sentence of the message. The body will start out with pronouns whose antecedents were in the subject line and which are often never actually subsequently stated in the body of the email. It’s very jarring until you realize what’s going on.

    And press releases are a third goofy thing, because there are apparently a lot of goofy conventions that must be followed, whereby the subject line must be of the form “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: CANDIDATE NAME [foos blah, bars blah-di-blah]”. The first fifty or so characters are prescribed, and for someone who still uses Alpine, that’s basically “the entire visible subject line, until you read the message”.

    (Of course, I am regarded alternately as quaint, peculiar, downright loony, or “causing inaccuracies in our click-rate tracking statistics” for my continued use of a plain-text email reader.)

  2. allogenes

    I agree that completely uninformative subject lines are bad, but getting tone from a subject line seems to me to be asking a lot. I view message subject lines as part of a header. I expect to derive both the originator of the email and some general sense of what he email is to be about from the header information; but details, tone, and other things seem like a lot to ask from a subject line.

    Of course certain messages are purposefully (perversely) problematic:

    Subject: We need to talk.

    A message with clear unambiguous tone, but perhaps no notion of specific content. This could be helped with a prefix (like from a mailing list):

    Subject: [I CAN’T TAKE YOUR SLOVENLY WAYS ANYMORE] We need to talk.

    If less tragic, or more so, there is also a fix:

    Subject: [I STILL LOVE YOU] We need to talk. –or–
    Subject: [DON’T BOTHER READING THIS–WE’RE SO OVER] We need to talk.

    But if one needs to talk about something else some more info might help:

    Subject: We need to talk [ABOUT HEALTH CARE REFORM]

    Which is a long way of saying that I see your point and have not the slightest helpful thing to offer.

    Since you dealt with threading, I’ll simply state that I depend completely on Gmail’s threading (and discussion list threading also) so for me the trade-off of breaking threading for informative subject lines is easy: Thread at all costs! Really. But an ideal mail system would allow/encourage multiple forms of organization, and I do hate that Gmail won’t allow me to manually thread two different subject lines together when I feel that is how they should be properly organized.

    An extreme form of tagging could help all of this:

    Subject: Imogen
    Date: Fri, 15 Avril 1611 13:38:22 GMT
    Tags: imogen, adulteress, kill her, Milford-Haven, generally unhappy

    [text deleted]


    But that seems a little much to ask without automation.

  3. allogenes

    You know, I have had some more time to think about it–there are systems that relate emotional tone to vocabulary that are used in psychology. I wonder if it is possible to add an emotional tone indicator to an email header based on these? Like the old Eudora did with the chili pepper for language. 🙂


Join the Conversation