E-mail is ubiquitous. It's also efficient and overwhelming, amusing and annoying, feel-good and impersonal. And, oh, yeah, traceable.
Say you’re head of a government bureaucracy.
For kicks, let’s say it’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A looming crisis, bigger than you can ever imagine, is at your doorstep in the form of a major natural disaster. Maybe a hurricane. The kind of thing your agency is supposed to respond to.
Do you e-mail someone and say, “Are you proud of me? Can I quit now? Can I go home?”
You do if you’re Michael Brown, whose overall response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 ultimately led to his resignation. And while it’s safe to say that other factors contributed to his downfall, certainly that e-mail — and others he sent the day of the hurricane that read, for instance, “I am a fashion god” — didn’t help things.
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Thank goodness for e-mail, which means that while you can reach just about anyone, 24/7, they can also reach you, 24/7. It’s an electronic medium giving anyone with Internet access not just instant convenience but the power to annoy, be misinterpreted or accidentally send sensitive information to the wrong person.
E-mail’s problem? It goes both ways. It’s used both formally and informally, not confined to the casual chattiness of instant or text messages. There are no obvious rules. “People just figure it out as they go,” says Kirkland’s Janet Faunce, who often uses e-mail for her home business. “It’s not like there’s a book.”
Ah, but there is. The just-released “Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home,” by authors David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, tries to make some sense of it all. While Shipley, the New York Times’ deputy editorial page editor, and Schwalbe, editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books, attempt to craft a bottle of wine from just a few choice grapes, the book does offer up amusing glugs such as “Stupid [and real] e-mail phrases that wound up in court” and “The eight deadly sins of e-mail.”
(Among the eight deadly sins: messages that are too vague, inappropriate or that won’t go away, as in subject lines that read “Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: that thing.”)
Their bottom line is this: Before you hit send? Think.
Layoffs by e-mail?
Let’s review some of e-mail’s benefits, one of which the former FEMA director apparently forgot: It’s documentable. It’s also versatile, fast and efficient — especially for group activities, since phone calls require a minimum of pleasantry. “It sure saves a phone tree,” Faunce says.
But then again: “Everyone thinks you should be accessible all the time,” she adds. “You know who’s bad? The schools. With sporting events, you’ll get an e-mail at 9 or 10 at night, and then they wonder why you’re not there in the morning.”
E-mail talk can spiral out of control, with time-consuming links and attachments or replies that must be cautiously crafted when a simple voice conversation could do.
“People shoot you questions,” says Carla Tachau Lawrence, who practices law part-time from her Seattle home. “The problem is, they think everything is urgent. It kind of increases your job exponentially because they have more access to you than they would have by phone.”
E-mail’s ease can prompt unnecessary exchanges of information. “I hate getting ‘forwards,’ the jokes and all that,” says Whidbey Island writer Molly Cook. “The one I hate the most is, ‘You’re my most wonderful friend, pass this on to five friends — including the person who sent it to you.’ And every time an older friend gets hooked up to e-mail, finally, you start getting these old jokes that have been around for 20 years.”
There are thank-yous that go on and on, the disdain for proper grammar or spelling, or the fact that your messages can be forwarded to others. Not to mention 72-point-type office-birthday announcements, people WHO INSIST ON ALL-CAPS or messages that demand to let their senders know you read them.
E-mail’s biggest drawback, though, might be its lack of personal connection.
“The worst thing is, you can’t convey tone,” says real estate agent Rich Tao, something especially crucial in business where it’s important to be able to read a person’s voice and facial expressions. For Tao, e-mail’s challenge is striking a balance between professionalism and the need to forge closer relationships with clients.
“Real estate is such a touchy-feely business,” he says. “I have to connect with my client. It becomes a fine art.”
Such situations are one reason Seattle interior designer Monique Jong drafts sample letters for communication involving conflict before e-mailing them as attachments. “It takes the emotion out of it,” she says. “You’re able to take a little bit better distance.”
But such distance can also tempt messages better delivered more formally. Take Radio Shack’s firing of 400 people via the following missive, noted in Shipley and Schwalbe’s book: “The work force reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated.”
Sure. It is entirely possible that this little “Radio Shack” outfit did not realize that today’s technology would allow such an e-mail to be forwarded for all the world to see. At any rate, e-mails can be so problematic that a whole field of law is brewing around the notion of “electronic discovery.”
Reading between the lines
As the authors of “Send” note, e-mails can pack drama not only for what they say but what they don’t. Let’s say your boss sends you an e-mail that says, “Will you be late for the meeting?” Depending on your situation, it could be either a warning (“I’m on eggshells!”), an insult (“Why would I be late?”) or just a mystery (“What meeting?”).
They also note that people aren’t quite themselves in e-mail. (Or maybe they’re too themselves: Shipley and Schwalbe note conversations with professors who decry e-mails from students that feature a lack of formality unthinkable in the past.)
Some replies are completely out of balance with what you sent. So if you write, “Man, I really loved hanging out with you at the retreat. Gotta do it again! What was the name of that movie you recommended?” and the answer comes back simply, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” you might find yourself concerned on all sorts of levels.
People, then, compensate with smiley faces or other emoticons. As the authors write, e-mail “almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it where it would normally be.”
Attorney Lawrence, for one, thinks that makes it more equipped for nuance than a letter. Throw in a few emoticons and exclamation points, and voilà. “I use multiple exclamation points, usually more than two. I could go halfway across the page,” she says.
E-mail has spawned its own language, one that either makes you LYAO or simmer in clueless frustration. It’s also created a whole line of new dog-ate-my-homework excuses for people not to act on something. Says Cook: “It’s like, ‘Gee, it went through my spam filter.’ Or, ‘My system went down, and I lost everything.’ “
Yes, the dreaded e-mail lost in cyberspace. “It used to be in real estate that everything was handled in person or by fax, but now it’s e-mail,” Tao says. “… In some ways, it forces you to pick up the phone. Because some people like to hide behind their e-mail.”
So maybe that’s why so-and-so didn’t show up to your 50th birthday party or offer to write that job recommendation. But if you send an e-mail and get no response, what are you supposed to do without pestering or seeming desperate?
Maybe they never got it. Maybe they didn’t like the way you phrased it. Maybe they don’t really like you. Or maybe, just maybe, they don’t do e-mail. In which case, what’s wrong with them?
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or firstname.lastname@example.org