Working With Conversations

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By default, Google groups messages into conversations for a number of reasons. This document is intended to provide you with an understanding of Google’s intentions in threading messages into conversations, and provide you with information on how to efficiently work with conversations.  If you access your email from a smartphone or other mobile device, you are probably already familiar with conversation view or "threaded" conversations.  Outlook also has a similar option, but it is off by default.


  • Conversation: A Google conversation is one email or a series of emails with the same subject, presented as a single view.
  • Conversation view: A view simply means an open email.
  • Thread/Chain: The industry term for a conversation. When a series of common emails are presented in one view.

Why Gmail Uses Conversations

Time management

A conversation allows an individual to focus on one particular topic at a time. The individual sees the complete conversation. In a traditional e-mail program you would view e-mail messages individually as they arrive in the inbox. Thus your attention becomes fragmented across multiple topics, making the entire process take longer and receive less than your full attention.

See all of the facts first

The threaded view displays the entirety of a conversation and allows you to see all of the facts and understand the context before responding. This is particularly helpful when a conversation has been ongoing before you enter into it.

In other email programs, it is common for an individual to come back from a meeting and begin reading and immediately start responding to email, only to find out an issue has been handled by another person, or has gone in a different direction. Conversation view helps avoid embarrassment and allows you become more efficient.

To raise the most recent conversation to the top

Because a conversation is seen as a whole, it allows the most recent conversation to reside at the top of the “stack,” instead of displaying only the most recent email. This allows you to deal more effectively with a topic that is happening right now instead of fishing through a pile of new email. It is designed to more efficiently handle a mailbox that receives hundreds of emails (or more) per day.

The ability to ignore conversations

Not every email you receive applies to you. Previously, you had to mark each individual message as read or deleted. Now you can click on it once and take care of the entire conversation. Even if the conversation continues into the future you have options on how you want to handle it. You can archive it and tell it to remain in the archive or you can re-engage with the conversation and will show you what has not yet been read.

To provide the proper context for searching

All email programs have some sort of search utility, but this can be hampered if the information you are looking for extends across multiple email messages. Also, in searching for keywords you may find the beginning of the information you are looking for, or perhaps the end, but you cannot see all of the information in one place. Threaded conversations allow you to find all of the information and then display that information in a readily understandable context. Without context, your search results could be inherently flawed.

The future of documents

Microsoft, Google, and the rest of the industry are beginning to understand the blurring and integration of web sites, emails and documents. Along with other companies, they have been making extensive changes to Windows, Office, email and browsers in a race to see who will be first and most effective. Where they’re headed is a future where there will be little difference between a web site, email message and a document.

Information will be documented and shared with whomever you choose. This can be a difficult concept to grasp at first. Recognize that Gmail (and other applications within Google Apps) is designed around this concept – essentially it is the same format as a newsgroup or a blog. Microsoft, Novell and the rest of the industry are introducing similar features in their own respective email programs.

Techniques for Handling a Threaded Conversation

Learn to open and close messages in a conversation


A conversation can be thought of in the context of a deck of “cards”. The first time you open a conversation, all of the “cards” (emails) will be open and ready for you to read. This may be 1 card, or 40 (or more). Upon subsequent visits to a conversation, the cards you have read will be closed; only new parts of the conversation will display as open. You do have the ability to open and close cards at will.

Closed cards will appear with the name of the individual in the upper left. Clicking on their name will either open or close the card. If it is an extended conversation, the names will sink in. Simply clicking on the gray top will expand all of the names. You also have the ability to expand or collapse all cards by clicking the arrow icon at the top right of the message window.

Understand how delete works


There are 2 delete options. The Delete button at the top and bottom of the screen will delete the entire conversation. The pull down list on each card will allow you to delete the selected card only. This can be helpful in eliminating useless contributions to the conversation. More information can be found on Google’s website.

Show trimmed content

To save on screen space, Gmail will hide “quoted text.” This quoted text is actually the information displayed on the preceding conversation cards. Thus the conversation is actually working to de-clutter and organize information. Notice the ellipses (...) at the end of a message within the conversation.  If you hover your mouse over the ...  you'll see the hint “Show trimmed content”.  Clicking on the ... will reveal all of the email. This is particularly helpful in evaluating replies to individuals within the conversation.

Pay attention to who you are replying to

The default is “Reply-to sender,” though this can be changed to “Reply-to all.” In the reply the screen will show you exactly what is being included in the message and exactly who it is going to. This gives you total control.

Use Stars

Stars can be a powerful tool when dealing with threaded conversations. A Star can mean whatever you would like. Some people use a Star on a conversation card to indicate a person has been replied to. Others use a Star to indicate they need to reply to a person. Yet others will use it to flag key data. The use of Superstars (multicolored stars) allows you to do all three; multiple Superstars can be activated through the Gear Icon > Settings > General tab. Click and drag colored stars and or icons that you would like to use.

Use mass mailing tools where appropriate

Threads can be more difficult when dealing with an email sent to thousands, and multiple recipients attempt to respond, using either a listserv list or a Google Group. If you are the owner or manager of the listserv or group being used, you can configure it to prevent replies completely, or to require posts to be moderated or approved.

Forwarding the entire thread


In addition to forwarding individual messages, you can also forward an entire conversation thread. To do this, simply open the thread you want to forward and select the “Forward All” option from the More menu. This will open a new message window, with all of the content of the thread copied into the message body. From this point you can send it as you would any other email message.

Forward a segment

You can also forward just one message or a segment of a conversation.  To do this, open the message you wish to forward, and from the menu at the top right of that message, choose Forward.  Be careful to review the full content in the compose window and edit or trim any information you don't wish to include.

Muting conversations


There may be times you have been part of a Gmail conversation, but no longer want additional messages regarding the conversation to show up in your inbox. You can mute the conversation to keep all future additions out of your inbox. Highlight a conversation in Gmail by clicking the checkbox to the left of it and select “Mute” from the more actions menu. Afterward, archive the conversation (and, if you don’t want to archive the conversation you can always highlight it and select “Mark as read”).

Edit the subject to change the conversation


Sometimes a conversation morphs into a completely different topic.  You can edit the subject when you reply or forward a message, as well as change the recipients.  Edit the subject by selecting the menu to the left of the recipient name.  Subsequent replies will appear with the new subject and be in a new conversation thread.  At the same time, the original conversation can also continue.

Conversation Thread Details

There are a number of factors involved on when a conversation will thread together:

  • It includes date, content, whom it was sent by and the subject line.
  • Up to 100 messages can be in a single conversation thread before Gmail will be begin a new conversation thread with the rest of the messages. This will continue to repeat in 100 message intervals for any one conversation.
  • Very long messages messages may be clipped by Gmail with a link to the entire message at the bottom.

Turning Conversation View On/Off

  1. Open Gmail
  2. Click the gear icon in the top right
  3. Select Settings
  4. Scroll down to the Conversation View section (stay in the "General" tab)
  5. Choose Conversation view on or Conversation view off
  6. Click Save changes at the bottom of the page

You can turn Conversation View on or off at any time. 


Content on this page has been adapted with permission from Boise State University OIT.