Thoughts on email etiquette: The end-of-thread issue

Over the years, there have been a number of lapses in the way people understand and use email. Even today, there are still problematic issues folks can encounter with electronic missives.

Most people, for example, know the basics about how email is easily misinterpreted. If you often write short, terse messages (as I do), they will often be wrongly interpreted as being snarky. The emotional communication with email systems brought about the common use of emoticons to solve this dilemma. You can add a smiley face if there is any chance that someone is misconstruing your note as anything other than non-judgmental and kind. It means that the author is not insulting or trying to insult you in any way.

Most of this deep-seated knowledge about email has been long since accepted despite the condemnations of linguists who, for years, griped and moaned about the negative influence of the smiley face – or any emoticon, for that matter – on the public discourse. Those voices all disappeared once they began to use email in earnest. The emoticon is not a problem, but rather it's the solution to a problem.

While this was taken care of, other issues have still yet to be resolved. The one that is elusive and still bothersome is the end-of-thread dilemma.

The end-of-thread dilemma arises when you are corresponding with someone and the thread seems to have no end point. It might go like this:

User A: Yes, that was a Ford car I was driving.

User B: That's what I thought. It's a great car. I hope you enjoy driving it. You are very smart to own it. Thanks!

Immediately, User A has a problem. He or she was complimented and thanked – two situations that should elicit responses like "thanks for the compliment" and "you're welcome."

Thus, the potentially endless thread continues if User A is guilt-ridden. So it ensues:

User A: Well, thanks for the compliment.

User B: You are more than welcome. I hope we can chat more on this subject sometime.

Oh no! It goes on!

User B could have in fact killed the thread by not responding, which would probably irk User A but it would at least end the conversation. User B could have just written "you're welcome" and hopefully ended the thread. Although, the thread could have been continued by User A with something abrupt, like "NP," meaning "no problem."

Instead, User B actually penned a new line of inquiry hinting that a response is necessary. This is where the game of "who kills the thread" begins, with both parties commenting back and forth forever. Sometimes it gets to the point where the winner is the person who has the last word. Getting nothing in return means the person who killed the thread with silence is a jerk.

It's almost as if email needs a moderator to work…

Unfortunately, there are no real rules of etiquette regarding these never-ending threads that devolve into lame pleasantries and mutual compliments, never resulting in a final goodbye. In a chat room, you can say you've got to go and just leave. Departing from an email thread in a similar fashion is probably considered rude. To manage email, however, I read the note sent to me and simply reply: "Noted, thanks."

So, I ask you readers, what’s your solution for getting out of these never-ending loops? Tell me in the comments section below.