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ToC3. Trim your signature

An email signature is not a graphical image (scan) of your handwritten signature (see the last paragraph in section 2.3 ‘Avoid Drag'n'Drop’ for why you should never use one of those in email). It's a block of lines underneath (or including) your name at the end of the message, identifying who and where you are, separated from the message by a ‘fence’ of two dashes and a space (see below).

If you're looking for security or authentication, see section 3.3, ‘Security and authentication in email’ below.

The standard signature block length is up to four lines, not including the fence (see RFC1855, §2.1.1).

Up to start of section3.1. Making a signature

Create your signature in your email program. In Outlook, this is in OptionsMailSignatures; in Thunderbird and other standard mailers, it is in Settings.

The signature must start with a ‘fence’, which is a line consisting of exactly two hyphens and one space which goes above the rest of the signature. Example:

AN Other • Department of Ancestry • University College Cork • +353 21 490 3000 • •

The space is shown in red here to just make it visible so you can see where it goes. Normally of course you can't see it, but it needs to be there. The fence is compulsory: without it, the lines will not be recognised as a signature.

Some versions of Windows interfere with what you type, turning two hyphens into a short dash (–), and erasing the space or turning it into a square bullet! If this happens, copy and paste the fence from the example above.

Separate the parts of your address information with a bullet or vertical bar or some other distinct character.

Up to start of section3.2. Disclaimers

Never use those 30-line ‘disclaimers’ full of pseudo-legalese about how the email is intended for the named recipient only, and how your organisation isn't responsible for anything it does.

Not only are they incorrect and useless (your employer is responsible for your actions as an employee) but they unnecessarily increase the mail size (see below), and only serve to advertise to the world your office's (and possibly your lawyers') lack of understanding of the Internet. Email does not get misdirected unless one or more of the following has occurred:

You and your organisation have to learn to take responsibility for your own actions: hiding behind legal small-print doesn't impress anyone—it just makes you, your organisation, and your legal advisers look amateurish and unprofessional, and that won't help you on the Internet.

Size: adding 1Kb of disclaimer can have a massively disproportionate effect on bandwidth and storage: for 10,000 daily outgoing emails, it means 10Mb extra bandwidth and 10Mb extra storage in Sent Items per day—in fact more, as most users don't edit their responses as recommended in section 4.4, ‘Reply sensibly’, so every additional response per message adds a further 1Kb to the total.

There is a genuine reason for a warning if your organisation is covered by the provisions of Freedom of Information legislation, under which your email may be subject to discovery. But that isn't a disclaimer: it's a warning: talk to your lawyers.

If you really think you have to disclaim all responsibility for what you wrote, or if your manager or lawyer tells you so, show them this, tell them they are wrong, and use something like:

The UCC Department of Ancestry disclaims responsibility 
for any errors they have made in this message.

If the lawyers insist on large amounts of legal wording, put one copy on the Web site, and put the URI (web address) in your email, for example (like IT Tralee do):

...blah blah end of your email.


If after all that you still feel compelled to add large blocks of text to your messages because Legal or Marketing think it will impress or disculpate people, use the following:

DISCLAIMER: Don't even think about looking at this mail if after you've started reading it you figure that:

  1. It wasn't for you

  2. You're not supposed to be reading it

  3. You don't even know what it says but think it might be something you're not supposed to see

  4. You're planning on running for office someday and are afraid this email trail might come back to haunt you

If you've already looked at it and one of the previous conditions apply then just look away and close it. Forget what it said. Just forget it. Pretend you didn't even see it and in fact, by now you should be asking ‘Saw what? I don't even know what you're talking about!’

In the event that you did read it and can't forget it, call your mother immediately and tell her what you've done. But don't tell her what you've read! Now you've really gone and done it. OK, now you've got to send her an email with these instructions. But not the email you shouldn't have read! Holy cow, are you stupid? Look, maybe it's just better if you didn't have access to email. How about this? Just forget what you saw, turn off the computer and leave it off for a few months. Unless you obsess over this really insignificant confidential disclosure you just read (really, it was nothing, that whole thing about the money and the smuggling and the botched coup was nothing) and are racked by guilt so that you can't quit replaying it over and over and over in your mind, then you should have totally forgotten it by the time you turn your computer back on. Just don't start trying to catch up with your emails when you turn it back on and read this really meaningless message AGAIN. I give up.

Best of all, if you feel compelled to state the obvious, allocate responsibility squarely where it lies:

I take responsibility for everything I wrote in this message: I don't speak for 
the big ol' University, and they don't speak for me. I sent it to your address in 
good faith: if it falls into the wrong hands afterwards, I hold you responsible.

There is (as of 2013) perhaps good reason to remind recipients that nothing any of us writes is private any more: see section 3.3, ‘Security and authentication in email’.

Be aware that this message and all its contents is being captured
for examination by one or more national intelligence services, and
possibly passed to other similar services or re-sold to commercial 
enterprises, so anything you or I write may be used as evidence to
restrict our travel or activities, or to track our behaviour in
the digital marketplace.

Up to start of section3.3. Security and authentication in email

If your email is secret, encrypt it.

If you want your recipient to be certain that it really did come from you, and wasn't faked up, use authentication.

Chalmers University has an excellent guide on how to do this with PGP on a Windows PC using Outlook or Eudora. Equivalent procedures can be applied to other mail programs.

Prentice-Hall have a similar guide to setting up GPG on Linux. Many mail clients (eg Thunderbird) now have built-in links to encryption and signing methods which will install the necessary plugins and prompt you for how to start using them.

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