Parents Just Don't Understand (How to Use Email)

By Mat Honan on at

I love my parents. But damn, they send some annoying emails. Urban legends. Chain letters. Petitions. Peculiar font choices. Long rambling messages with no clear meaning or point... GAAAAAH!

Mum! Dad! Cut it out!

Yes, that animated gif of a sneezing panda bear is adorable! But it has no place in your email signature. And while I would love to know more about who you ran into at Tesco today, email isn't a good medium for that. That lists of facts about the housing crisis you forwarded me? Completely untrue. No, forwarding me an email will not contribute any money to anyone, anywhere, for any reason. No, I do not think those fwd: fwd: fwd: cute puppies are cute. Please, just don't forward me anything, okay? Why does your subject line go on for three sentences? I can't read that. How did you even type it?

And, look, I can't even talk about your typography decisions yet. I'm sorry, I just can't.

Here's the thing. Your parents almost certainly don't get as much email as you do. They likely spend far less time wrestling through an inbox. Moreover, the email they do get probably tends to be disproportionately personal—the kind of message where it's okay to have a sparkling animated puppy dog cuddling a rabbit, above some scare-mongering six paragraphs about enjoying every second of life, because life is so so short. (Or at least, okay-er.) It's not that they mean to send infantile email, it's that parents just don't understand.

It's on you to fix this. Think of it this way: when you were a child your parents did things that probably hurt your feelings, but that you were better off for in the long run. They taught you to be polite and to have good manners, how to share, and not to tell lies. Teaching these lessons was probably just as painful for them as it was for you to learn them. Now that you are an adult, you need to do the same thing for them.

There are basically two steps to handling poor parental emailing. First, you need to set some guidelines, and if the problem doesn't stop, you're going to have to address infractions on a case by case basis. Think of them as preventative, and putative measures.

Start off by sending them some helpful pointers. Do this seemingly apropos of nothing, rather than in response to a problem email. The email charter makes a good starting point. Or you can even send a link to this story. Just include a little note like, "hey, Mum I found these email tips really helpful, and I bet you will too!" You want the message to be informative, but harmless.

Or let's say there is a particular issue that needs addressing. For example, your father has an urban legend problem. You need to let him know that he's kind of making a fool of himself. But he's your dad. So be covert about it and explain the issue in a way that spares his feelings but resolves the problem before he sends another one about David Cameron's secret nipple enhancement operations. Actually, you can just copy and paste this (I think it's pretty good):

"Hey Dad,

I was just reading an email from SOMEONE ELSE'S NAME, and was once again appalled at the amount of misinformation floating around the Internet. I hope you don't mind me venting, but I knew you'd understand. I just can't believe how few people know that most things received as email forwards aren't true! I wish people would check check to see if something was true before sending it along. Especially if it seems farfetched. Sorry to bug you! How's everything in PLACE YOUR FATHER LIVES?

Love you, (optional)


Try and do this in advance. If you just, say, send a link to Snopes as a reply without first having addressed the problem, you could hurt a parent's self-esteem. You mum gave birth to you! Don't hurt her feelings over an email forward. And the thing is, no matter how old or smart or successful you are, they are still your parents. They wiped poop off your butt. They may have a hard time taking your advice. Be subtle.

But once you've sent preventative guidance, you've got to level up if the problem persists. You might send 200 emails a day, but someone making these kinds of mistakes probably doesn't—and he or she could use some additional hand-holding. So don't be a jerk about it and be sure to be clear about what the end goals are.

For example, I sent my mum the email charter. She loved the idea of using [eom] in the subject line. (EOM is shorthand for end-of-message, it's designed to let someone know they don't have to actually open your email.) So instead of long rambling emails, she began sending me long rambling subject lines. Because the subject lines were too long to be read in my inbox, I still had to open the message thus defeating the entire point of [eom].

In fact, her emails became less readable than before. She was trying, but I didn't fully explain, and in failing to do so made the issue worse. Once I fully explained why you want to use [eom], the problem stopped. Well. For the most part.

My point is, you have to help them understand why you want them to do these things. If they persist with poor email behavior it's time to have a painful-but-necessary conversation. Explain how their behavior affects not only others—wasting people's time or spreading misinformation—but also themselves. It's time for some tough love.

Just keep in mind: it's for their own good. I mean, do you really think it's a good idea for your dad to be sending out emails to his business acquaintances with cherry red text and a Papyrus font face? Or chain forwards sent to everyone in his address book?

Consider what your reaction would be if that email came not from a parent, but a stranger who wanted to do business with you. You need to shield your folks from making potentially devastating email blunders. You have a duty to let them know that they look foolish, or are being really annoying. And it's better that they have that conversation with you, than for someone else to be having that conversation about them.

Oh, and by the way. Mum? Dad? I don't want to just offer criticism, I want to offer you some support as well. Your Yahoo email address has gone from commonplace, to outdated, to laughable, to delightfully quaint and retro. I think it's fair to say that it's now even pretty hip. You have inadvertently managed to win this one. Congratulations! Carry on.