Bless the Subject Field

Someone once told me that rudest e-mail habit of all is to send one with zilch in the subject field. She said that, to fight this scourge, she never opens an electronic missive that doesn't announce itself properly, no matter who it's from. That may be harsh, but she's right: At least you could have written something. Whether she'll win the war is another matter entirely.

I believe the empty subject field is a product of either haste or laziness, or both. Rarely, it seems, is that white space intended as a slight. Then, too, maybe we just don't know how to fill it yet. After all, we're only a few years beyond paper letters -- and those hallowed envelopes with actual stamps on them never sported a subject field, unless you count the years when S.W.A.K. was in.

We did doodle, though, on our envelopes sometimes -- XXX's and OOO's and hearts with arrows through them -- but we never summed up the content of a letter on the outside. (Advertisements in envelopes, on the other hand, often -- and well they should -- tell you what's inside, as in, "You Are Our $100,000,000 Million Winner!'' -- meaning of course there's nothing in the envelope of any value and it's safe to toss it out.)

You may ask, "Who cares if the e-mail subject field is blank: Between e-mails and the Internet we're swamped with stuff!" Granted, but it's still not right. The subject field was created by the same god that made the Internet, and it would make zero sense to create something unless it was meant to be used. In short, by neglecting the subject field we thumb our noses at the divine. Is that any way to treat a benefactor whose works we so often praise with hallelujahs like, "What in the world did we do before e-mail?"

Almost as lame as writing nothing in the space provided is doing a lousy job of it. "Hey," for example, is not an acceptable subject line; among other reasons, it sounds like one teenager greeting another. Neither is "Yo,'' by the same logic. Commands like "Listen" or warnings like "Urgent" or "Emergency" are all equally poor choices. Excessive use punctuation is another failure, as in "Hey!!!" or "Hey there!!!" and "Are you there???" And may the Internet god protect the e-mailer who would dare beef up his/her subject line with all caps to produce pushy blasts like "HEY THERE!!!" (Yes, there are people who do this.)

A quick caveat: If the e-mailer is known to you, and someone you regularly forgive for all sorts of things, then you won't mind a blank subject field. You won't give it a thought, and you'd be right. We need a bit of trust in this world. Even if this dear one writes something stupid in the field, then that's all right, too: Love means never having to prove you can actually write.

But back to loud e-mails. We use the phrase "over the top" for a reason: It means you've gone too far. This especially applies to e-nauts who would ride into the minds of their interlocutors by whipping up entire, professional-length sentences in the subject field. As in, "Mom just called to say that the lights are off and the wind is blowing over 130 miles an hour even that far inland and all the trees are ... " Poor Mom! Did that million-year-old hemlock crash onto the living room where she is cowering in the storm of the century? Has the cat been sucked out the kitty-door into the maelstrom? You open the e-mail, heart a-flutter, only to find there is nothing there, that your dear sibling simply thought he/she was writing in the body of the mail and not in the preamble -- and didn't even finish that.

Perhaps worse are those times when e-mailers momentarily delude themselves by thinking they can write bona fide headlines, with which they proceed to lard the subject shelf. Unfortunately, most of these end up meaning various things -- "Mom reports big wind" -- which besides being a poor headline in and of itself can be taken various ways and teaches us nothing.

Which brings me to cheating, as in subject field entries that attempt to trick you into reading the body of the e-mail. This type of deception often crops up in scams, where someone will announce in the foyer of an e-mail, "I have $100,000 for you" -- if only you will send her your bank account information. Mind you, most people quickly spike these. But not everyone, and the fraudsters make millions year in year out.

If not deceptive, then nasty. These are rarer, because most decent people don't get a thrill from e-mailing someone with a foul word in the subject field unless they have a beef with the recipient. And yet occasionally one of these unspeakable preambles will crop up as a four-word letter or two or three -- which is definitely not what the creators of e-mail had in mind. The solution is to flush them away with all the rest of the failed e-mails and feel better for it.

If not vulgar, then boring. This is a major sin. "Checking in" won't ever do, any more than a store-bought greeting card really does the trick on a birthday. "Thinking of you," "Wish you were here" and "How're you feeling?" fall into this pit. Any of us can do better. Just try a little sincerity.

I'm sure there are many styles and tricks to subject-field writing that I'm not aware of but that deserve either our heart-felt praise or foot-stomping condemnation. But in the end what may matter most is the utter tragedy that befallen us: We have lost the art of summary. Because if you can't pull all the threads of your tangled thoughts together into an accurate, enticing or even simple subject line once in a while -- "Tree misses, Mom says" -- you might as well log off for good.