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When I write emails I try to keep them as short as possible. Having said this, to prevent a protracted back and forth exchange I still think it is important to give all relevant context. In some cases I break my email into short sections with headings, however generally I just bold the key question/s. Is it polite or useful to bold questions posed in emails or could it be seen as rude or demanding?

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    In general, using formatting in emails is unprofessional. People expect emails to be text, not HTML – raptortech97 Oct 10 '14 at 10:59
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    I do. Others might not. I might be an exception, but whenever I see any of that used in an email I'm surprised and displeased. – raptortech97 Oct 10 '14 at 11:10
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    @raptortech97, html is widely acceptable, the last time I heard valid complaints about html was back-in-the-day when some folks used emacs to read their mail on a vt100 green screen. On the other hand, I do admit that it is possible to destroy credibility by going overboard with formatting. – teego1967 Oct 10 '14 at 12:35
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    Subtle and conservative use of underlining, italics, and colour increases readability and thus productivity. I would also argue use of bold increases efficiency, however my concern is with people's emotional response to it. My opinion of unprofessional is an email which is hard to read, whether it be unformatted or over-formatted to point of distraction, eg a non standard font is almost never justified. If someone's email workflow can't handle HTML, they should probably re-evaluate it. – User Oct 10 '14 at 12:59
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    I rarely view messages other than as pure text, and then only when there is a very good reason to do so. That eliminates any risk of virus propagation etc. through e-mail. I would see your formatting as HTML tags - not a problem, but less clear than e.g. putting the question on its own line. – Patricia Shanahan Oct 10 '14 at 17:28
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Bolding is unnecessary. There are better ways than bolding to highlight a question. I very frequently write emails with questions where the question is a bullet item.

So for example:

Hello boss,

I am working on answering a question at Stack Exchange and have a few questions. Was hoping you can help me with them.

  • Should I upvote this answer?

  • Should I use bold for questions?

Thanks!

This highlights the questions in a way which is far better than bolding as it has none of the "LISTEN TO ME NOW" implications. It also flows better, too.

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  • +1 By analogy, showing "SOMETHING IN ALL CAPS" shows how something in bold might look to someone else's eyes. Sticking to convention (e.g., on S.O., are questions bolded?) is better, and to emphasize what is important, just remove what isn't. – michael Oct 11 '14 at 6:59
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If you have vital questions to ask, the best thing you can do is to just put them at the top of the email.

This does 2 things:

  • Gets to the point for the readers who already know the context
  • Keeps readers focused on what you need from them if your email goes on to elaborate.

However, you really should consider keeping emails short, especially if they require some action from the recipient. When I say short, I literally mean 2, 3, 4, 5 sentences. Going beyond that increasingly risks losing the attention and interest of the reader. An exception would be an email to a short list of engaged participants where you are responding to someone's inquiry for specific information.

Things such as using bold text, styling, or html formatting is really dependent on the context. You just have to use good judgement as with any form of writing. If you're using bold, it should be for a good reason and your prose should make it clear that you aren't being rude. I ALWAYS use HTML, because I mix normal sentences with things like code or serial numbers, sometimes tables, sometimes plots, or pictures.

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    I like the idea of just putting it at the top. – User Oct 10 '14 at 12:44
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    @scruss: That's an overly broad statement. In my sector, if a colleague or a contractor were reading my official emails during the working day on their mobile, I'd have serious questions as to why. First and foremost, why are they not at their desk?! – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 10 '14 at 22:28
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    This is called Bottom Line Up Front, and is the standard of professional communication in many organisations. – Trevor Powell Oct 11 '14 at 1:16
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    @Lightness Races in Orbit, I've had a succession of bosses for whom e-mail is answered on a blackberry during a smoke break, sometimes with one letter ('Y' or 'N') replies. If they had to scroll, you'd lost them. – scruss Oct 11 '14 at 2:26
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    @scruss: That's terrible. They should finish their break then go back to their desk and take their job seriously. This behaviour would be cause for me to go over their head as it is wholly unprofessional and unhelpful. – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 11 '14 at 12:04
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Why do you need to bold them, when you can place them on their own line, or in a list format? A lot of people equate bold text with shouting, so I can see why people might not appreciate it.

I'd look at other formatting options.

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  • Yes. Also some people have special formatting disabled and will miss out on that anyway. Best to just use text/paragraph-based formatting. – franka Oct 10 '14 at 10:57
  • There is no need per se, I am just trying to make my emails easier to read. Equating it to shouting is my fear, so you're probably right. The issue with putting it on a new line is that the paragraph structure looks odd. Perhaps that is just an argument for me to rework their structure. – User Oct 10 '14 at 11:01
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If you were to bold your questions to me the way you bold them in your post, I'd be looking for you and give you a piece of my mind.

It's one thing to be asking questions, but the bolding creates the unpleasant perception that you are grabbing me by the lapels and asking the question. And sometimes, that you are getting in my face and asking the question. You will really stand out in my mind, because no one that I know ever bolds anything to me. even in the most urgent case. If the case is really urgent, they'll plant themselves right in front of me and tell me to my face - they won't be sitting down at their desk and wondering what to put in their email to me. Or if they are not in the office, they will be calling my line and let my management know that they are looking for me.

Refrain as much as possible from bolding - the question mark "?" is more than adequate in most cases.

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  • Wow ok, I am now too scared to use bold. In college I had a job responding to emails and whilst I never used bold in my reply (as it was on behalf of a company), I appreciated people who used bold to help me parse emails quicker and increase productivity. I guess in the real world I need to be more careful of peoples sensibilities, rather than going for efficiency. – User Oct 10 '14 at 11:48
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    @User Emails are expected to be short and to the point. Somebody who writes long emails and then has to resort to bolding to make what they are looking for - that's counterproductive. As a related aside, when your boss writes you a long email - watch out! It's not a good sign, because no one sits down and writes long emails unless they are seriously motivated. And if they are happy with you, they'll be much more likely to tell you in person than sit sit and write long emails to you about how happy they are with you. – Vietnhi Phuvan Oct 10 '14 at 11:53
  • I agree in general, but the only thing worse for my productivity then an overly long email was an overly short one. Either I have to email back for more details or respond to every contingency unspecified. Both waste time. – User Oct 10 '14 at 11:59
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    @ViethniPhuvan: I think maybe this is over reacting a bit. Sometimes long e-mails are unavoidable. Not all questions / answers can be written in 2-3 bullet points. Context may be necessary and extraordinary items must stand out. I agree that formatting should be used sparingly (I myself bold items about once every other month) but as any tool it should be used when it's needed only. I also agree with that being too much to-the-point can be just as counterproductive by leaving context or important details. – ApplePie Oct 10 '14 at 22:48
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    @AlexP Unless you can't reach me, the alternative to a long email is to contact me. I have no trouble reading emails that are one to two pages long, assuming that the writing is coherent and the thinking behind the writing makes sense. But writing such a long email would kill the productivity of the individual who authored it. I agree that there are times when someone must bite the bullet and write. – Vietnhi Phuvan Oct 10 '14 at 22:54
2

This is an opinion case question, here are some possible answers. And the question also requires information like what sort of email you send and to whom you send, What kind of reply is most probable ..etc.

In a general case, when you are sending an email and you are segmenting and bolding some parts of it means that you have taken much care when writing the mail. And it is definitely useful to the reader because it makes the email easy to understand, especially in cases where the mail is so long like you have to fragment it.

Politeness is mostly an opinion based judgement.

In some cases, by bolding a question the reader finds it easy and he/she could think that you are willing to take care of some hassles. So, reader may think the mail format is polite.

In some cases when you are asking a question, you bolding it means that you are deliberate about the question. Which could make someone feel uncomfortable because receiver may feel you are forcing the receiver to choose one among set of answers.

In some cases when you bold the question and you do with a relatively unimportant question, the receiver may think you are not that much bold in you field.

If the receiver answers another unbolded question in the mail not the bolded one and finally you find out receiver didn't answer the intentionally bolded question which demands an answer, you will have to ask her again to answer that bolded question. You will have to draw her/his attention to that question, but not the same way as you do it when the question was not bolded.

In general communication mails where the politeness of the sender is disregarded the preferred way is bolding and segmenting. Because that makes it easy to read.

Again, to be fair this is opinion based answer and requires more information from @user to answer.

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    Thanks for your thoughts, although I am not sure I can add any more information. In recent months I have started bolding my questions in various contexts, I am seeking opinions on where if at all this is appropriate. You raise a good point about bolding options. – User Oct 10 '14 at 11:32
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    I categorically disagree that "politeness is mostly an opinion based judgment". Politeness is not a take-it-or-leave-it choice unless one wants to face serious repercussions. What constitutes "polite" in email can vary widely depending on the situation and it might not be clear, but that doesn't mean it can be dismissed as just an opinion. – teego1967 Oct 10 '14 at 12:48
  • @teego1967 - I didn't take that line ("Politeness is mostly an opinion based judgement.") as meaning that "politeness is optional". I connected that line to the following paragraphs, and I read it as: Regardless of whether you thought (your judgement) that you were being polite, the Reader will have their own opinion and make their own judgment on whether they view it as polite or not. – Kevin Fegan Oct 10 '14 at 17:59
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    @KevinFegan I didn't mean politeness is optional. When you say something to an army officer he will expect you to speak in a constant, little bit above the average tone. When you say the same thing to a priest he will expect the tone to be low and non-constant. This is just like that. – user27584 Oct 11 '14 at 2:48
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What nobody mentioned, but is really important, is your mail subject line. Put the question there in a way that the reader can already think about the answer before even opening the mail.

Subject: Should I use bold in mails?

Body: Hi ... Nobody really cares what you write here :p but you can explain the details, why you are asking and what exactly you mean with bold, ...

If the subject line is well chosen, you could most of the time even leave the body empty, unless of course you talk to customers and need to be polite. So you really don't need to use bold. (did it help that I made it bold?)

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  • I still think it helps direct attention, but I have heard loud and clear that it can be taken badly. Thus it's a bad idea. I normally say the topic of the question in the subject, however posing the actual question its most succinct form is a brilliant suggestion. – User Oct 10 '14 at 19:19

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