Strange Characters in Email

Strange Characters in Email: a reader asks…

Why is it that sometimes emails I get from other people have strange characters in them? Sometimes the entire email is gobbledy-gook, and other times only some characters (like the apostrophe) are replaced with wacky characters. Is there a way to stop that? I use Windows 10 and Outlook (MS 365) for email. I’ve asked the sender about it and they say my computer is messed up. I don’t have this problem anywhere else, just with emails from a few senders. This particular sender uses a Mac.

The short answer to your second question is that there likely isn’t a whole lot you can do about it, especially since your sender is deflecting blame. Most likely it’s not your computer that’s the problem, but the sender’s computer or their email application (less likely, their email service). As to why this happens, read on…

The problem is that to send email, we all use different brands, types and ages of computers. We also use different software applications to do email and use different email service providers. Each of those have the potential for mis-translation. Computer systems also use different languages to communicate with each other. Email apps often have multiple ways to “encode” outgoing messages, such as Unicode (UTF-8), Western European (ISO), or Western European (Windows) for Microsoft Outlook on Windows, and Rich Text Format and Plain-text on Mac Mail.

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In general, anytime you translate from one spoken or written language to another, there’s a chance for words, phrases or meanings to get garbled. It’s the same with computers and email. Your experience sounds an awful lot like the common example of someone who uses an older Mac and is using the older MacMail app which is set to use “Rich Text” format. That older format simply isn’t fully compatible with modern text encoding. As a result, common, typable characters like apostrophes aren’t recognized by newer, non-Apple computers. If your computer can’t recognize a specific character, it tries to substitute whatever fits closest, and that’s often unrecognizable. Same for many other non-text, non-number characters on your keyboard.


So what can you do about it? Hmm, since they’re blaming you, they likely don’t hear from others that there’s a problem. If they send to mostly Apple computer users, then newer versions of MacMail can recognize the older Rich Text format and display the emails as intended. And not everyone is going to call out the sender of an email for what could be typing mistakes. All you can do is ask them if they’ll send email to you in plain-text format. In Mac Mail, there’s an option under Format to send an email that way, called “Make Plain Text”. Otherwise, just ignore the problem – it won’t go away but you should still be able to make sense of the email. All letters and numbers will be fine, it’s only other characters like punctuation, and other Rich Text items like bullets that might get garbled.

Plain-text emails are very simple and aren’t subject to any of the translation hiccups. But they are much more limited in what can be sent. You can’t use fancy fonts, colors, bolding, underlining, etc. Neither can you embed images in your emails. Plain-text is the oldest format, so it’s the most widely understood and least likely to get garbled.

The Rich Text format has evolved over time so that modern systems now use pretty compatible encoding. Newer Macs won’t have this problem. But there are still lots of older computers and mail applications out there that use older versions of the Rich Text format, and you can’t force everyone to upgrade. Most current email applications use HTML encoding when sending emails, which is very compatible, again with modern systems.

Of course, if the entire email is garbled, then you can’t read it, so by all means let the sender know. If this is the case, it could simply be that the sender is using a foreign language (and keyboard). If it truly looks like gobbledy-goop, then it’s a computer language translation issue and the solution is to have the sender re-send you the message in plain-text format.


One other unfortunate result of this mishap is that the sender who is sending email out with incompatible formatting may get themselves blocked by anti-spam measures, since spammers often send out emails with garbled characters as well. This is why it makes good sense for the sender to use a more modern email app and/or computer. If updating isn’t possible, then the sender should switch from using the MacMail app to using webmail (e.g., email done in the Safari, Chrome or Firefox window, such as Webmail avoids the issue of outdated formats since it’s actually done on an internet server, and you’re only looking at the interface from your computer through your web browser.

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