The Name as Subject Line==Severe Stuff convention: how did it start?
June 17, 2014 9:45 PM   Subscribe

So I've noticed a convention that using someone's name--and only their name--as the subject line in the email message means that something pretty severe has happened to them. Like, if Jane Bloggs had a healthy baby, the subject line would be something like "Jane had a baby!", but if the subject line was just "Jane" or "Jane Bloggs" or "Aunt Jane" (assuming I'm Jane's nephew) then either Jane or her baby or both would be in the (N)ICU or more likely the morgue. I'm wondering where this started. Any help?
posted by tellumo to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm guessing it'd be repeated spontaneous behavior.

Just because it would be a bit callous to write:

Subject: Aunt Jane is dead
Aunt Jane is dead.

Callous Twit
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:50 PM on June 17, 2014 [14 favorites]

Your question sounds like you think this is a specific practice that was introduced somehow and then caught on. I strongly suspect it's just a natural thing. Pre-email, if I had gotten a phone call that said "It's about your Aunt Jane, call me" I would have assumed it was bad news, and I wouldn't have wondered why there weren't more details. Many people seem uncomfortable putting detailed bad news in an email or voice message, and it's hard to think of a euphemism or soft way that doesn't come across strangely without facial expressions and/or tone of voice. In addition, they may be under stress or having to contact a lot of people at once.

tl;dr people (in North America, in English) have been doing this as long as there's been email or voice mail, I believe.

Maybe it'll go away as more people become more comfortable with technology. (I would honestly rather get a detailed text that actually told me what was going on.)
posted by wintersweet at 9:52 PM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

repeated spontaneous behavior

Agreed. This is like asking where stepping over puddles started.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:53 PM on June 17, 2014 [16 favorites]

(NB: My mom likes to send me life update emails that have subject lines of "Dad" or "Your niece" and I *always* briefly freak out, before remembering that she always does that.)
posted by wintersweet at 9:53 PM on June 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: The convention makes sense. You don't deliver bad news without context, and subject lines in email are often limited in length to the point where there isn't enough room for context. I don't think this is an etiquette rule as much as it is convention.
posted by sockermom at 9:55 PM on June 17, 2014

I agree with the others. It's shorthand for "This is about Jane, see below".
posted by bleep at 10:08 PM on June 17, 2014

It's hard to pin down exactly where this originated, but the use of a subject line on personal correspondence is specific to email. Pre-email, such news would probably have been communicated by a personal letter / note or maybe by phone, not by a business letter with a subject or ATTN line. (Even personal telegrams lack a similar line.) So I think that basically, it's something that evolved with email, probably the first time someone had to send bad news that way and was forced by their mail program to enter something in the field.

The question then becomes: when did "Subject" lines become a standard (if not mandatory) part of email?

The common answer that I've heard is that RFC 733, written in 1977, is to blame. It's what gave us the (bleh) "memo" format, even though most emails aren't memos or even close to them. However, I think the behavior was common in messaging programs at the time; RFC 733 standardized it, but it didn't create it.

Basically all email programs trace their lineage back to a mainframe program called SNDMSG, which was used to write the first emails in the early 70s. I have never seen SNDMSG in operation, but RFC 543 contains a sample interaction with it, which clearly shows the user being prompted for a subject. RFC 543 was written in 1973, and presumably used a contemporary version of SNDMSG.

I don't know of any email message archives from that era, because most people purged email too regularly and aggressively, but if you could find one I bet you'd see the behavior as early as the SNDMSG era.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:40 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Another vote for "just instinct" - my mum does this (in email) and she's as clueless as you can be in terms of etiquette or convention (both for email and "memos"). She's also non-anglophone European btw.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 1:13 AM on June 18, 2014

I think this convention is broader than email. Obituaries in small local newspapers and internal newsletters within organisations have used this kind of convention for years. The numbers are small, so there is no need for a specific "obituaries" page, but (as pointed out above) the direct headline "Jane Bloggs is Dead" looks crass. I've sometimes seen variants such as "Jane Bloggs (1940-2014)".

Also, I wonder if it is influenced by the look of obituaries pages generally. In UK newspapers (perhaps elsewhere too), there will be a page-headline "Obituaries" then a page of articles each of which has a headline just consisting of the person's name.
posted by Jabberwocky at 4:31 AM on June 18, 2014

Many people set up their email so that they see only the subject line, especially on their phones. I use "Sad news: Jane" in the subject slot to prepare them and provide a heads-up that the contents are significant and potentially difficult, especially if they are somewhere that an emotional reaction might not be advisable, like a business meeting.
posted by carmicha at 4:32 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If I were telling you that Aunt Jane was in dire trouble that's the speech pattern I wuold use.

"Tellumo?" (Deep voice cue here that it's going to be bad news)

"It's about Aunt Jane." (Continue deep voice cue in case you missed it during direct address)

"Not that close friend of yours named Jane you met during the Occupy Protest. Or me. Your Mum's sister Jane." (Specification of exactly who, should there be any ambiguity, which comes before the big news.)

"She's been arrested." (Break news in very simple sentence)

"The NSA took her because she was researching pressure cooker purchases over the internet. We think she's in Guantanamo." (Details)

There is a reason I do it this way. If you are deep in game of WoW I need to make sure you are paying attention and at times people do not take in bad news, they go into instant denial so as not to register it especially if they only half hear the information. So I am making it very clear that I need you to pay attention. I also need to make sure you understand that this is just Aunt Jane and not Uncle Hrothmir and the twins as well.

Some people also get so threatened by bad news that they feel personally attacked by the messenger "Why the fuck did you tell it to me like that?!" or even if you are unstable you could swing a punch at me. The slow deep voiced delivery helps us to entrain so that you don't freak out on me, or at me.

Now supposing I need to convey this over e-mail because darn it, your phone is switched off. I'm going to try to follow the same slow, flat, almost monotone delivery. It's instinctive. Nobody taught me to do it this way. I observed the pattern in other people and when I mentioned that someone had eaten the last brownie my sister burst into tears in front of the fridge and then started screaming at me so I have learned from experience as well that you don't just callously drop horribly bad news on people.

Also, consider that your friend says, "Gee, I'm sorry about your Aunt Joan," and you say, "What?" and he says, "Didn't some aunt of yours just get shot by the NSA or something?" and you say, "WHAT!!?" and he says, "Uh, I saw something on facebook yesterday. Uh. I think I did. Maybe it was your sister. I don't remember?"

At this point you are going to be checking your phone for missed calls and scrolling very quickly down through your in box. You will be looking for subject lines. FBI coming for you next, Urgent Lottery Win, Pick up pickles after work, Gun nuts say another crazy thing, You have 132 Farmville notifications... Nope, nothing here about Aunt Joan. But in fact that first e-mail is notification that Aunt Jane is now wearing a black hood and an orange jumpsuit and I am giving you a real warning that you should not have research backpacks on line. But you will miss it because it looks like it's more political commentary. However if you notice a grim heading like "Hrothmir and twins all safe in Venezuelan embassy" or "Aunt Jane" you will open it just in case it has something to do with the garbled information you got from your friend.

So it's innate, just using the usual speech and communication patterns adapted for e-mail. And it works because you have observed the pattern. That means when you get a subject header "Aunt Jane" you will register it the same way you register my deep voice.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:37 AM on June 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

I haven't REALLY noticed this... whenever people communicate bad news to me, it is typically in person or over the phone.

I'm guessing it's a courtesy thing -- people want to communicate bad news when it won't surprise you, and in as personal a matter as possible.

Would you WANT to see just a subject line of "Jane was killed by a drunk driver," which would be shocking and upsetting news as you glance over your new e-mails before reading them?

It's a convention in my company to send notices of employee deaths or family deaths by mass e-mail with the subject line being some variant of "Sad News..." The body of the e-mail usually reads something like "Joe Schmo's daughter Jane was tragically killed by a drunk driver this past Saturday. There is a sympathy card at the security guard's desk if you would like to sign it. Funeral services will be at 10 AM this coming Thursday at Saint Peter's Church at 123 Church Street in Townsburg."

This, I think, is far more tactful than a subject line of "Jane Schmo has died" or even "Jane".

I'm sure the subject line thing started because a lot of people have the same opinion as I regarding bad news; it should be communicated as personally as possible. If you see "Sad News" or "Jane" as a subject line, you're now prepared to receive the sad news contained in the e-mail.

I am reminded of a work e-mail I once received, sent from my boss to my project team. I had no idea there was a position open.

The subject line? "Please welcome Jane Smith!" (names changed, of course.)

Now, I have a co-worker named Bill Smith. Bill had just married about a year prior to this e-mail and was talking about possibly having children, so my mind of course made the fairly reasonable assumption that Jane was his brand new daughter. I considered walking on over to Bill's office to congratulate him on the new baby. Thankfully, before I did this, I actually opened the e-mail. It read something like this:

"We've just hired Jane Smith. She starts next Monday. Please welcome her to the team."

They are unrelated, and have a fairly common last name.

That is the kind of news I would have preferred to read in a subject line. Death, accident, or other bad news? Not so much.
posted by tckma at 6:03 AM on June 18, 2014

I've noticed this too, although usually in work contexts: if you ever get an email that's just your name, start updating your resume, etc. 100% speculation, but I think it's got something to do with the thing where if your mom says your first name (or first and middle, God forbid!) and nothing but your first name, you're in deep shit.
posted by dekathelon at 6:38 AM on June 18, 2014

Back in ye olde phone days, we said "hello! how are you? blah blah blah"

When we called about an emergency the convo went

"Tellumo! Look something's happened to Jane, she's in the hospital!"

Note the lack of "hey wazzup bla bla bla"

People treat email much like spoken word. I've heard it said that email is a verbal medium that unfortunately has the permanence of a written missive. So true.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:06 AM on June 18, 2014

Best answer: Whenever someone says something awkward, my new response is "people just don't know what to say." It's really true.

Then again, I totally feel you. I got this email several years ago from my grandfather's wife, with the subject line "Marvin [Lastname]." I immediately assumed it was to let me know that some great-uncle I'd forgotten ago had passed away. Turns out they got a dog and named him Marvin and she was sharing puppy pix.
posted by radioamy at 11:23 AM on June 18, 2014

It's not just bad news, though. I work at a university; my boss is a dean and professor. He gets frequent correspondence from students. A lot of the students use (their) Firstname Lastname as the subject of their email. I mean, a lot. At first I thought it was just undergrads, but I've since seen a lot of older graduate students use this convention.

It baffles me. I mean, who the email is from is obvious in the inbox and doesn't need to be reiterated in the subject line. And, the purpose of the subject line is to, you know, convey the subject of the email. The actual subject is usually "Can I meet with you" or "My grade" or something like that.

Just a data point. I also would like to know where it comes from, because at least in the non-bad-news situations, it's memorably odd.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:30 PM on June 18, 2014

i think it's because you don't want to be scanning subject lines and see "aunt jane is dead". at least i don't. "aunt jane" could at least be info about her flower show or something, but then you also know it's something possibly important and not more ramblings about obama from your uncle and so will actually open the email. to learn that aunt jane is dead.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 5:52 PM on June 18, 2014

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