by John Suler, Ph.D.

To Part I

II. The Subject Line

The subject line is a tiny microcosm unto itself. Most often it's used to simply summarize or introduce the major idea/s contained in the body of the message. But experienced e-mail users understand the more subtle techniques for communicating meaning and emotion in the titles they bestow to their e-mail. The subject line can lead into, highlight, or elaborate a particular idea in the message. It can ask a definitive question, shoot back a definitive answer, joke, tease, prod, berate, shout, whisper, or emote. Sometimes its meaning may blatantly or discreetly contradict the sentiment expressed in the body of the message. A creative application of caps, commas, slashes, parentheses, and other keyboard characters adds emphasis and complexity to the thoughts and emotions expressed in the subject line. Here are some examples illustrating these ideas:

and now for something completely different
What should I do?
the solution is....
loved it!
Jim! help, Help, HELP!!
I'm so impressed (yawn)
Have To Do This
Things afoot...
Even more/sorry
thanks for your compliment and support, really!
please read
guitar, our visit, money
OK folks, settle down
It's been fun, boys & girls ;-)
Bob / battles / techniques / bullshit

In an e-mail archive, examining the list of subject lines across the development of the relationship is like perusing the headlines of a newspaper over the course of months or years. It reflects the flow of important themes in the history of the e-mail encounter. These patterns or trends over time might reveal hidden or unconscious elements in relationship between the two people. For example, one interesting feature is the use of "re:" as a prefix to the subject line. For how many messages did the couple continue to click on "reply" and reuse the same subject? This might indicate the emotional intensity of that particular thread.

The use of "re:" versus creating a new subject line can be an interesting dynamic interchange between e-mail partners. Creating a new line is a bit like taking the lead in the relationship by introducing a new title for the interaction -- like creating a headline for the little "story" that is the ongoing dialogue. It's an attempt to conceptualize, summarize, and highlight what the person perceives as the most important feature of the conversation. Creating a new subject line calls into play the "observing ego" -- that ability to step back and reflect on what is happening. It shows a sense of responsibility and ownership for the dialogue -- in some cases maybe even an attempt to control the dialogue. In this fashion, some e-mail partners "duel" with each other via the subject line. Simply clicking on reply without creating a new message title may indicate less of an observing ego and more of a spontaneous reaction. It suggests a "I want to reply to what you said" mode of operation. Some people chronically fail to create a new subject line and persistently use "re:" They may be a bit passive in the relationship, or lazy. They may not feel that sense of responsibility, ownership, or control. If this isn't true, their partner may still perceive them as being that way.

Spammers will try to exploit the dynamics of a subject line in order to trick you into opening the message. Beware of subject headings written all in caps, embellished with asterisks and exclamation points, or containing overly friendly or seductive messages ("Just wanted to say hello...") - especially when you don't recognize the sender's name. If it looks and smells like spam, it's spam.

To Part III


John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.


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