On Email: How it's Like Postal Mail

December 16, 2013 by Eric and Steve

One of the most important aspects of Internet competency is the ability to send, receive, and understand email. That’s because email has become one of the most commonplace and effective ways to communicate in almost every form of business. It is faster than snail mail, more concise and less intrusive than a phone call, and more…what did you say that was called – a fax?

Despite all of this, many of us grew up in a time before email and many of us use it with limited capability. This is true of many aspects of the Internet, and it is part of the reason that Intersites has chosen to become invested in comprehensive Internet Guidance. The Internet represents an abundance of affordable solutions for optimizing your business model, regardless of industry, and many if not most of them can be leveraged through education.

In the case of email, we’re fortunate that many of the methods and terms are borrowed from traditional mail. This makes explaining it easier on us and understanding it easier on you. So grab a cup of coffee, and let the lesson begin!

The Address

Just as a street address represents the physical location of a mailbox on Earth, an email address represents the virtual location of a mailbox on a computer.

Physical street addresses usually appear as:

Firstname Lastname
Street Number/Name
City, State, Zip Code

Email addresses follow a pattern of their own:

An email address is essentially two pieces – that which appears before the @ symbol and that which appears after the @ symbol. That which appears before the @ symbol corresponds to Line 1 of a physical street address. That which appears after the @ symbol corresponds to Lines 2 and 3 of a physical address.

Different companies adopt different practices to determine the yourname component of an email address. For example, Eric at Intersites is; and, all other employees follow suit, using the pattern., our website, is simply a computerized space that holds many things, including our computerized mailboxes. When people have free email addresses at spaces such as or, they are simply using a free, computerized mailbox on that website.

The Envelope

Just like traditional mail, every email is contained by an envelope, and this envelope identifies both the sender and the recipient.

On a postal envelope, the sender is identified by the address in the top left corner of the envelope, and the recipient is identified by the address in the center. On an email’s envelope, these details fall under the fields labeled To: and From:

Email allows you to send a message to multiple people at once, by putting multiple recipient addresses in the To: field. Email also allows you to send a “Carbon Copy” or a “Courtesy Copy” to anyone else you think might benefit from reading a copy of your message. This field is labeled Cc:

In some cases, you can also use the Bcc: field, which sends a “Blind Carbon Copy” to a recipient. They call it “Blind” because the Bcc: field hides Bcc: recipients from everyone else.

So, for example, if you had email envelope that looked like this:


It means that Eric is sending an email intended for Travis to Travis, a Carbon Copy of this email to Chris, and a Blind Carbon Copy of this email to you. Furthermore, Travis and Chris know that they’re both reading the email, but they don’t know about you!


When you send a letter, the postal worker who removes it from your mailbox does not deliver it directly to the address listed on the center of its envelope. Doing so would be extremely inefficient, and so instead they take it to their local mail sorting station. Depending on how far the letter has to go, it may go through a number of sorting stations before it actually reaches the person whose job it is to put it in the recipient’s physical mailbox.

In all, physical mail delivery is nothing short of magical – and email delivery is much the same. When you click Send, your email does not go directly to its recipient’s digital mailbox. Instead, it goes through a complex system of servers that sort and eventually direct it to that mailbox. In this sense, email is not instantaneous. Still, delivery usually takes seconds or minutes, not days.


Just as physical mail has become more than just mail and has grown to include small packages, email is more than just written messaging. Email attachments are files that come with written email messages but are packaged separately. Attachments can be images, videos, audio recordings, or even longer text-based documents.

Like packages, attachments must be opened separately from the messages that accompany them. This adds to email’s versatility but also to its potential danger. Email attachments are common vectors for computer viruses and should only be opened when they come from a trusted sender.


Like physical mail, the end goal of email is to deliver written communication to your mailbox. Both systems are highly organized but also highly complex, and as such neither system is perfect. Just as with the postal service, email messaging systems do make mistakes, and delivery is not guaranteed unless you go to additional lengths.

With snail mail, “additional lengths” can mean paying for first class service or insurance. With email, it can mean paying for premium service. Premium service can be as little as $5/mo., and in addition to increasing your email success rate it also makes you appear more professional.

In both cases, a bit of follow up can also work wonders. The beauty of email is that once you send it, most systems automatically save a copy of the message. In cases where the email is particularly important, it can be useful to go back and check whether you addressed the message to the proper recipient and whether you said everything that needed to be said. Many email systems also incorporate a Receipt Function, which notifies the original sender once the recipient has opened their email.

It’s also important to remember that in the end, someone or something has to take delivered email from the digital mailbox and into its recipient’s hands. Perhaps even more than a letter left in a physical mailbox, an unopened email is essentially irrelevant. That being said, if you’re trying keep up with your email, it can be helpful to integrate alarms or reminders or even to hire an assistant.

Also keep in mind that if you’re trying to get in touch with somebody via email, and it doesn’t seem like they’re going to respond, there’s nothing more direct than picking up the phone and giving them a call.

Explain Snail Mail to Your Kids

When it comes to navigating the Internet, Understanding Email is a major landmark. At Intersites, email is probably our most common mode of communication, and you can be sure that in the weeks to come Suite 131 will be featuring at least another article or two on the topic.

For the time being, we hope that what we’ve provided can help you get a better grasp on digital communication. In the meantime we might also suggest using the Postal Mail::Email Analogy as way to describe snail mail to your kids.

They might find the concept of ATTN: as foreign as you did a Bcc; and while you might be able to blow their minds by bringing up a P.O. Box, prepare to be equally amazed when they start talking about things like IMAP and POP3.

Posted in Help Me Understand, Quick Tips

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