Once upon a time, someone with a sociopathic tendency invented an email header field called X-Priority, a derivative of the widely ignored Importance: header. Ranging from 1 to 5 it is meant to convey the priority of the email, with 1 being the highest priority, and 5 being the least. A priority of 3 (or omitting the field) is meant to imply normal priority. Those of you using OS-X’s Mail.app can find a way to change it on your outbound email using the Message->Mark menu option if you must. This results in the mail you mark as important arriving with a couple of exclamation marks, shouting ‘read me, read me, read me first’.

A great scheme, you might think. If you do think that, you’re most likely using a mailer which ignores this field, which is in fact the correct thing to do. Here’s why:

  • X-Priority: does not mark how important an email is. It marks how important the sender of the email thinks it is. Scientific examination (ok that may be an exaggeration) of my inbox suggests marking an email as important has a negative correlation with me thinking it’s important. The fact your email is important to you does not make it important to me. It’s often a far better indicator of how self-important the sender thinks they are.
  • Worse still, various bizarre ticketing systems (Zendesk being one culprit) appears to set this on every outgoing ticket update if the ticket is marked important in some way. Even if I didn’t mark it important, and am one of 957 CCs.
  • Somewhere over 90% of email correspondents don’t use this field. So if an email arrives without its little bundle of self-important exclamation marks, I have to decide whether it’s important by (shock horror) reading it anyway. In otherwise, your attention seeking display has saved me no effort.
  • Further scientific examination suggests that no one who uses this field to indicate their email is any more important than normal thinks that any of their email is less important than normal. An examination of their email suggests this is incorrect in more cases than they might imagine.
  • X-Priority: does not tell me why you think your request to sponsor your bike ride to Ibiza in aid of Fathers For Beer is in fact important.

I am one of those people who manage their daily workflow using email. My ‘to do’ list is mostly my unread email. If you want to attract my attention without irritating me, send me an email. Don’t IM me (that interrupts my workflow). Don’t phone me unless interactivity is really important. And unless you want to be told at great length why it’s mostly a pile of stinking shite that doesn’t work with my laptop, desktop or iPhone (for various different reasons), whatever you do, don’t Skype me. Just send me an email, preferably one actually setting out what you want (rather than asking me to ring you, Skype you, write to you on vellum, etc.). Using X-Priority: tells me you think you can organise my workflow better than I can. Next time you set X-Priority: imagine you are trying to push ahead of those queuing at the bar or the aircraft gate telling them that your pint or flight is far more important than theirs. Also consider that my likely reaction is pointing and laughing, rather than agreeing.