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I've always sent emails in plain text, in 72 character lines, and thought that was the right way to do it.

I started to work for a new company recently. People here send emails in HTML all the time. Many also use features like highlighting, different fonts and embedded pictures (with important texts in it). I kept sending and replying in plain text until I noticed when I replied in plain text, the format of the original mail got broken and caused inconvenience to the recipient (The originally highlighted texts were replaced by texts enclosed in two asterisks. And she was unable to highlight the information I provided and forward it to another person).

Is it polite to send emails in plain text when others don't? Especially when replying?

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    Something to think about: If you send HTML-only mails, many spamfilters will be much more likely to stop your mail, and many security-aware persons just won't read it at all. If you want HTML, send both modes, ie. HTML and the same content as text too, in the same mail. – deviantfan Nov 6 '16 at 10:42
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    Ask your manager – rath Nov 6 '16 at 10:46
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    Many of us still strongly prefer plaintext email, since it avoids many of the potential risks and since all too often the fancy stuff gets in the way of the message rather than enhancing it. It also avoids all the risks of not being readable for folks using assistive technology like screen readers. Is your priority to be pretty, or to communicate? At the very least, make plaintext an available option, and preferably make it the default. – keshlam Nov 6 '16 at 14:46
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    @keshlam That makes sense for outside communication, but if the team is already using HTML, I think it could be bad etiquette to suddenly convert an HTML-based e-mail thread to plain text format. – Brandin Nov 6 '16 at 16:20
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    @keshlam And many more people will hate you for converting an HTML email chain with images and fancy signatures into an unreadable plaintext mess. The question is clear but as-written it's still going to get opinionated answers instead of anything useful so I'm voting to keep this closed. An edit to ask "Is it unprofessional to reply to HTML-mails in plaintext?" would have a better scope. – Lilienthal Nov 7 '16 at 11:16
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The world has moved on. Normal email etiquette from the Usenet days simply looks weird to most people, and cannot be accomplished conveniently with many email clients.

There are some areas where the old rules still apply, notably the mailing lists of many open source projects. But every employer I've encountered recently uses either Microsoft Exchange + Outlook or Gmail as the company standard. Outlook can manage plain text, but has pretty much no support for the rest of old fashioned email etiquette.

I currently send some office emails in plain text, but only because the default fonts on our Korea office PCs mixed badly with the default fonts on our California office Macs, and going to plain text was the easiest way to stop inconveniencing my Korean colleagues. But I reply to incoming messages in the format received; I don't even update subject lines when the thread morphs (Outlook doesn't follow the appropriate email headers, threading solely based on subject line, AFAICT, so changing the thread name creates confusion.) And I stopped pruning the 20 past messages off the bottom of my replies once I realized that some versions of Outlook show you prior messages in the thread by using the attached quotation spew, not by looking at the prior emails.

I suggest you tailor your email style to the recipient, and consider using two separate email clients, and possibly two separate addresses - one for open source lists and your old technical friends from way back when; another for non-technical people and most younger techies.

On the specific question - plain text emails are OK, but 72 character lines with hard breaks won't make you popular. And messing up quoted text is a bad plan.

My personal policy - Outlook-style emails at work; mutt-style emails at home, with my spam filters prejudiced against html emails, particularly those with no alternate plain text version. When I need to communicate with an html-addict from a personal address, I use an alternate email account.

  • You're right. Using two separate addresses is the solution. – TheoYou Nov 18 '16 at 12:56
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    Two separate work emails? Good luck with that, @TheoYou. – Masked Man Nov 18 '16 at 14:20
  • Most employers pretty much enforce outlook or similar. I don't try to reform them. But I use 2 personal emails. And I sometimes send old-style messages via Outlook, to appropriate people. – Arlie Stephens Nov 24 '16 at 23:33
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"Is it polite?" is an irrelevant question here. If the rest of the team heavily relies on the HTML features in their emails, you should do the same to facilitate smooth communication.

You also seem to have noticed that your plaintext responses cause inconvenience to your recipient, so if you want to work well with this team, I would suggest just use HTML in all your work emails.

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    This is really what it comes down to. Just like top vs bottom posting. Either works, but mixing the two together is an unholy mess of confusion. Stick with the company style - or if you really care about it THAT much - find a new employer who shares your style. (Expect a lot of weird looks from interviewers when you start asking about it though.) – Dan Neely Nov 6 '16 at 15:24
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Is it polite to send emails in plain text when others don't? Especially when replying?

It's perfectly polite to choose to send all emails in plain text.

These days it would be considered unusual, particularly when others send formatted emails, but it's not impolite.

Is there some reason you choose not to match the norm at your company? If you are sensing some pushback from others, that may be relevant.

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It depends on the reason you're doing it. In general it's best to follow group conventions, but it's not automatically rude not to.

I force all of my incoming email to plain text and send it the same way. I do this for visual accessibility; too often I just can't read the HTML email with custom fonts (usually tiny) and fancy stationery backgrounds and multi-column layouts (that only work with tiny fonts) and whatnot. I've explained to my immediate coworkers why I do this, and if I need to use highlighting I find some other way to do it. (Often the right approach is to quote the three relevant lines out of that 200-line tome by themselves and not make people dig through looking for red text.)

My email client allows me to toggle back to the HTML view for an individual message, so if somebody sends me something where the formatting is essential I can switch to that, perhaps squinting a lot, and deal with it.

If you have a need for plain-text email, talk with your coworkers about the problem. Mine were very understanding, and it's helped move a few things out of email that should have been done on the wiki in the first place. If it's just a preference and not that important to you, though, try to do what they do; it'll make things easier for everybody.

Whatever you do, though, don't put hard line-breaks in your outgoing email. Modern email clients will auto-wrap long lines. What you're doing can come through as a bunch of one-line paragraphs when the client puts extra line-breaks in. That's really hard to read.

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Normally you should just follow company's culture but even if you send it in plain text when most of them use HTML, it's no big deal if you are the one sending the first mail.

But when you're replying to someone's email, it makes sense to not change the format as long as it doesn't take additional effort on your end. If the sender is using HTML then it's possible that he/she is using the extra formatting features that come with it, he/she might find it strange/inconvenient that you switched everything to plain text. Even if they don't have any particular reason for using the HTML format, still you using the same format can make it easier for them to read/process. Same reasoning goes for replying to plain text format. Modern email apps are smart enough to keep the original format when you hit reply.

If it's a long chain and when multiple recipients are involved, then it makes even more sense to keep the format being used by rest of them.

That being said, some devices like older blackberry may allow only plain text format when you reply. If that's the case then it's ok to switch the format, the recipients would usually know why the format changed.

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It seems you are using manual line breaks, so in your second seven line paragraph you would have hit the "return" key six times to break the lines after 72 characters. As the recipient, I would (a) find that inconvenient, and (b) would make me doubt your abilities of using a computer.

You can just write plain text paragraphs without manual line breaks, and it's fine.

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    No, breaking lines is the email client's job. – TheoYou Nov 6 '16 at 10:32
  • Yes the receiving email client breaks it as per the readers view – Mark Nov 6 '16 at 13:00
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    @TheoYou: In a perfect world, email clients would always do their job properly. In the real world, I sometimes get mail (or web pages) with lines that are as wide as a 24" display, or which extend far beyond the client window. – jamesqf Nov 7 '16 at 6:17

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