An Increasing Problem: Replying to Old Emails for a New Topic

Email client on laptop

How many times have you received an email with an old subject line that is unrelated to the actual content of the email?

The prevalence of searching for an old email and replying with an entirely different subject is increasing. Clients tell us that receiving a re-used email is very frustrating and wastes much time.

Let’s break this practice.

This careless (and frankly, lazy) practice makes it maddening to find attachments, save information, search for a specific email, and archive projects with any organization. It's very problematic for remote recipients and in project development work, especially.

It happens because:

  1. We search our inbox for a recipient’s name when we need to send a new email, perhaps to find their email address.
  2. Instead of starting a new email, we reply to an old email that has a subject line unrelated to the new topic.

Let’s look at an actual example with names changed to protect the guilty. We received payment for an online course but could not definitively match it to any registration, so our Client Care employee needed to email the person who made the payment to verify who she wanted to enroll.

EMAIL #1: Client Care sent the email below with the payment invoice appended below the email.

From: Grace McCaffrey
Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2019 4:05 PM
To: Michele Anderson (name changed)
Subject: Fwd: Item #BWT_NN - Notification of Payment Received from Michele Anderson

Hi Michele,

Thank you for your payment for our Effective Business Writing Course for Non-Native Writers. We received your payment but no recent corresponding registration.

Please confirm the participant you are enrolling. Is it Nanette Noname?

Best regards,
Grace McCaffrey

Response to Email #1

On Thu, Feb 21, 2019 at 4:07 PM Anderson, Michele wrote:

Good afternoon Grace,

Yes, Nanette Noname is the student for this writing course.

Thanks, and enjoy the rest of your day!

Michele Anderson

(The bold, red italics in Michele’s signature line isn’t ideal but that is a topic for another blog post. For this article, let’s stay focused the problems that result from reusing emails.)

Client Care confirmed her information and the enrollment:

From: Grace McCaffrey
Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2019 4:43 PM
To: Anderson, Michele
Subject: Re: Item #BWT_NN - Notification of Payment Received from Michele Anderson

Thanks, Michele, for confirming this. We'll get her enrolled right away. 

Best regards,

At this point, all was fully resolved. The original email, response, and confirmation worked. That should be the end of this email.

However, five days later, Michele replied to the same email with an entirely new topic.

From: Michele Anderson
Sent: Tuesday, February 26, 2019 12:29 PM
To: Grace McCaffrey
Cc: James Carling
Subject: Re: Item #BWT_NN - Notification of Payment Received from Michele Anderson

Good morning Grace,

I have an employee wanting to enroll in Business Writing Coaching - Level 2.  In order to process his application for training, would you please send me the service agreement, case study, and any other relevant information so I can get this approved.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks, and enjoy the rest of your day!

Michele Anderson


This new request sent by replying to an old, resolved, email that was unrelated to this new topic resulted in two challenges:

  1. James Carling, who was copied on the email had no idea why he would receive an email with a subject line related to a course payment receipt. Once he oriented himself by reading the new email, he also had to read the original email for full context, wasting his time.
  2. More emails were required on this new topic to send information and signed contracts. There is no way now to use the search function to find these signed contracts in the email client of any of the recipients because the email subject line is unrelated.

Think of the impact of re-using old emails for new topics in project development, sales, or anything with an attachment. It’s chaos. For a mobile recipient, context and search is even more challenging.

This is so simple to fix. Before you respond carelessly to an older email with a new topic, consider your recipient and your message. If your message is not related to the old email, start a new email with a relevant subject line.

The content in emails should match the subject line. This is something we teach in our email writing course. Following the basic format of email is considerate and it saves much time and frustration.

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Katie Almeida Spencer

About the author

Katie Almeida Spencer

Katie is an experienced Business Writing and English as a Second Language instructor, business writing coach, and teacher trainer. She taught Business and Academic Writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Rhode Island and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Read Katie Almeida Spencer's Full Bio

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