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Recently I was tasked with writing an email for a wide audience of both mid-managers and technical IT personnel. I needed to explain technically why an event occurred and provide key points to management so they could act upon the information provided. After spending a fair amount of time writing the email, I realized that most managers probably wouldn't read the wall of text and several sections of bullet points I had written. Since I didn't have the option to break the email into two parts (ie.. one technical and an overview) I included a "TL:DR" section titled "TL;DR - Overview" with a paraphrase of the technical information in the rest of the email.

Some team members pointed out that using the phrase "TL;DR" might be considered unprofessional. When pressed about this, none of them could exactly point out why they thought that, but stated that I should probably not use that phrase in the future. Upon further thinking, it might come down to an age disparity. I don't see the phrase "TL;DR" as having negative connotations in any sense. But working with an older generation I could see how some of them might be off-put by the idea that "This email was too long, I didn't read all of it" however true that might be.

Is using "TL;DR" in the workplace (written and oral) unprofessional? If so, why?

closed as primarily opinion-based by gnat, Dukeling, JakeGould, OldPadawan, dwizum Jun 22 '18 at 11:39

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Masked Man Jun 22 '18 at 13:38
  • "TL:DR" derived from internet forums when someone posts large block of text that is unreadable or requiring a lot of effort. If your email is too long for people to read, then a simpler email is needed. Maybe even including a "BLUF" type email that summarizes the content and then go in depth. – Dan Jun 22 '18 at 14:22
  • "TL;DR" is a bad misspelling of "Executive Summary". – Abigail Jun 23 '18 at 7:05
  • TL;DR is informal. It's unprofessional when formal language is called for. There are times when being informal IS professional. – candied_orange Jun 23 '18 at 11:53

12 Answers 12

86

I would say that TL;DR is unprofessional. TL;DR stands for "Too Long; Didn't Read".

If you wrote an email with a "Too Long; Didn't Read" section, it would be unprofessional. You already came up with the appropriate word and added it to the "TL;DR". Simply use "Overview".

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    Yes, use "Summary" or "Overview" and then "Details" or "Technical Details" for the main body part. – Phil M Jun 21 '18 at 23:37
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    This kind of summary is also referred to as "management summary" in some places, says everything – SchreiberLex Jun 22 '18 at 9:05
52

Yes, TL; DR is unprofessional - it implies that you think someone (managers) wouldn't read your email.

Which implies you think that the managers are, themselves, unprofessional. In that they are not technically literate and not dedicated to understanding the issue. And it is this opinion - that the managers are bad managers - that is unprofessional.

Your use of TL;DR indicates another potential problem - was this section at the beginning or the end of the email? TL;DR implies it was at the end - this is not where a summary should go. The summary should be at the beginning.

You also note "Since I didn't have the option to break the email into two parts" - presumably you mean "two separate emails"? I've never heard of anyone getting such specific guidance on the structure of an email.

For your case, it would make more sense to have broken the email into two distinct emails. One, titled "summary of the issue" and in that, you summarise the issue. Then note further details are found in a "detailed summary" email, where you put the more detailed email.

Given you apparently were under instruction to not do this, the simplest course of action would be to:

  1. Note at the beginning that this is a long email. That the first section will summarise the issue, and the second section will go into greater technical detail.

  2. Summarise the issue

  3. Go into greater technical detail.

When writing to managers/people senior to you, always take the opportunity to present yourself as a manager. This implies a degree of formality, precision and intelligence.

Abstain from using TL;DR again, whether talking to junior, same level or senior people in a professional setting.

As a note - your use of it is nowhere near as egregious as it would have been had you responded to a long email with TL;DR. Please never do that.

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    Your main argument against TL;DR is that it implies people won't read the email, but isn't TL;DR basically just a summary (which you're recommending using instead, and which implies the same thing)? How is a summary with "TL;DR" prepended different from a summary without it? And why is it bad to imply people won't read the email? I certainly wouldn't want to read a long email about something that's not relevant to me and I most definitely wouldn't care if someone implies as much. – Dukeling Jun 21 '18 at 21:12
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    @Dukeling summary doesn't imply you won't read it. Summary is just a condensed version. Summaries are excellent for giving context, and then readers get to apply that context to the in-depth detail. It's also slang, and when talking up - as noted - one should present oneself as a manager, not a maverick. Mavericks use slang because "they are too good" to give deference. – bharal Jun 21 '18 at 21:48
  • And if its a long document describing why something (presumably serious) why did you not write a report in the form of a word document - email is not a long form medium. – Neuromancer Jun 21 '18 at 23:28
  • @Dukeling If the email can be summarized, then why are you sending out the long form rather than the summarized form? If the receiving party needs more information, you can send it to them when they ask for it. – Cronax Jun 22 '18 at 9:22
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    Another good angle for your answer might be to explain what the acronym TL;DR stands for: Too Long; Didn't Read. Such phrasing seems inherently unprofessional to me. To my knowledge it originated in informal settings like discussion forums, which is another contributing factor towards that. – Cronax Jun 26 '18 at 16:02
16

This really depends on who is writing the TL;DR. If you are writing a constructive email, and you want to provide a TL;DR as a Summary, that is perfectly professional, however I'd simply label it "Summary" and not "TL;DR".

If however one of your colleagues has written a long email to you, and you reply with TL;DR, that would definitely be unprofessional, as it implies you don't care to take the time to read someone's thoughts on a specific matter. Some people would be quite put off by this. Personally, if I feel I need to reply with TL;DR, I schedule a face-to-face, as usually they can communicate what they are proposing far faster than I could get it through written text.

10

Short version: Yes, TL:DR is unprofessional.

Long version: TL:DR is unprofessional, not because old foggies don't understand it, but because they will -- they will understand that you think you wrote a bunch of text which you expect them to find somewhere between tedious and incomprehensible. That you expect them to struggle with it and in the end give up before finishing it. Which they will justly find insulting, even if true.

Instead of being insulting, be considerate -- clearly and accurately present the essentials up front, so that they will be able to make an informed judgement on the amount of detail they need to read and when they need to do so.

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    TL;DR TL;DR is unprofessional. :) – Mateen Ulhaq Jun 22 '18 at 3:34
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BLUF: I have found putting BLUF at the top of the message, email or report and then a quick synopsis to be an acceptable method.


I have found that BLUF for Bottom Line Up Front works. It puts a paragraph at the top so that the summary and conclusion can be quickly found.

I have used this and read this in military and government offices.

Those who need to know all the details can read the entire document, those that don't need all the details can get the basics quickly.

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    I am not sure this answers the question... good anecdote tho' – ochi Jun 22 '18 at 5:41
  • Ah. Pity that. I liked this answer before the edit, but putting the abbreviation at the top of the message is likely to be a bad idea. – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Jun 22 '18 at 10:15
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[A lot of good answers already, but I think this covers another angle.]

On its own it's not necessarily unprofessional - even those who disliked the phrase might be inclined to put it down to naivety rather than unprofessionalism, and there may be some companies or departments where it would go unnoticed or even be appreciated.

But now some of your colleagues have indicated they don't appreciate it, it would be seriously unprofessional to continue to argue for it - particularly if you're going to put people's dislike of it down to factors that may be considered age discrimination.

You already had the word "Overview", which works on its own, so why add "TL;DR"? If you thought your colleagues would like it, their reaction suggests that was mistaken and you now know that you're not working in a place where this is a good thing to do.

Taking account of the views of your colleagues is the professional approach.

3

Summary

"TL;DR" can be offensive, as it implies

  • that managers are unwilling to read you email (which may or may not be true),
  • that the cause it this is simply the length of the email (which may or may not be true)

This phrase is therefore likely to mischaracterize the recipient in either deed or motive, thereby giving unnecessary offense. Giving unnecessary offense is not professional.

Details

For instance, most managers are quite willing to read through reports with dozens or even hundreds of pages if the content is relevant for them. To say that the simple length would deter them leaves laziness as just about the only possible motive.

Also, it is quite possible to managers may actually read through your email, but benefit from a summary to put the details into context.

Yes, people are aware that TL;DR is a common idiom, and most will ascribe its use to youthful naivety, while calling it "Summary" or even "Executive Summary" would emphasize that you thought of and care about their needs.

Would you rather work with somebody who trivializes your work, or with somebody who anticipates and cares about your needs?

  • +1 for "executive summary", which is widely used by institutes writing lengthy reports for policymakers, which policymakers won't have time or expertise to read in detail. Managers may not have time to read a 100-page report, which makes a 4-page executive summary very useful. – gerrit Jun 22 '18 at 7:51
3

Do things properly and write a document instead and attach it to the email.

If you're creating an email that requires the use of headings and forces people to scroll to read a "wall of text", it's an indication that it's probably too long to be an email.

Instead, write a document with headings, and format it so that it's easy to read for all your target audiences. Start with an overview that describes the issue in plain language and then sub-headings for specific purposes.

Use the covering email to summarize the contents and let readers decide whether they want to read the document or not.

Creating a document reinforces the professionalism here and shows that you care enough about the issue here to document it properly.

If you find yourself typing TL;DR, then stop right away; it's an indication that there's a more professional way of writing what you're about to write.

2

I've never used "TLDR" in a work email. However in the instances where I do have to send long emails, usually I try to think up the most descriptive subject title I can think of, and provide what would be a TLDR as the first paragraph to serve as, in academic terms, an abstract. That way somebody will know if they should be interested enough to read the remainder of the email.

2

You have to consider the history of TL:DR here.

People would be having a discussion online and someone would type out an argument and the other part would reply with only 4 letters: TL:DR. Basically saying: I'm not interested in your opinion and I am going to ignore your argument. This was and is very rude behaviour.

As a countermeasure, people started using a TL:DR in their arguments and giving a summary trying to cut-short the TL:DR users.

In a professional environment, assuming your readers are "TL-DR"-ers is unprofessional.

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Using any sort of undefined abbreviation is unprofessional.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Masked Man Jun 24 '18 at 17:11
-4

If I'm writing a technical email to my bosses, then once I find myself getting beyond 3 paragraphs, I stop, head those 'Detail', and start a new paragraph at the top headed 'Executive Summary'.

Pretending that their time is valuable, and stroking them by calling them executives, has never got me into trouble.

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    this reads more like a tangential comment, see How to Answer – gnat Jun 22 '18 at 10:58
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    This gets somewhere close to answering the question implicitly. Would you mind including an explicit answer to the question being asked? This post contains useful advice, but it should be posted in addition to (not instead of) answering the actual question. – Masked Man Jun 23 '18 at 18:32

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