Preventing an e-tastrophe

E-mail is the fast, reckless, often feckless communication medium on which our world now depends.

E-mail is the fast, reckless, often feckless communication medium on which our world now depends. David Shipley, of The New York Times, and Will Schwalbe, of Hyperion Books, elucidate electronic etiquette in their reference guide entitled Send: The Essential Guide to E-mail for Office and Home. According to Shipley and Schwalbe, e-mail is the most difficult written communication method ever devised. It allows one’s message to become “a blank screen onto which the reader projects his own fears, prejudices, and anxieties.” Shipley and Schwalbe relate their experiences with e-mail, alerting readers to the dangers of “send,” the computer’s most alluring command.

Why does e-mail have such a tendency to get us into trouble? Answer: Lack of inflection or tone. Any given sentence can be infused with a variety of meanings simply by changing tone of voice, body language or timing of delivery. E-mail does not provide any of these non-verbal cues. It leaves inflection for the reader to decide. Furthermore, e-mail mimics face-to-face conversation but doesn’t allow visual or aural monitoring of the recipient’s response. If we begin to offend someone in e-mail, it may be a while before we discover what we’ve done. It may be longer before we can make amends. Similarly, both parties might openly express anger before either realizes a misunderstanding has occurred.

Shipley and Schwalbe examine the anatomy of e-mail piece by piece (To, Cc, Bcc, and Subject). They provide valuable tips explaining how misuse of any of the parts of e-mail can distort the message and create unwanted animosity between sender and recipient. According to Shipley and Schwalbe, “On e-mail, people aren’t quite themselves: they are angrier, less sympathetic, less aware, more easily wounded, even more gossipy and duplicitous.”

Above all, e-mail communication is rife with potential for political snafus. In order to avoid these pitfalls, the authors advise to first figure out who you are in relation to whom you are e-mailing. Are you a boss, a subordinate, a friend, a combination of all of the above? Your role will make a difference in how your e-mail is perceived by its recipient.

Shipley and Schwalbe speak from experience. They, like many of us, have hit “send” too soon. After the first few chapters of Send, one wonders, is the “e” in “e-mail” for “electronic” or “evil”? Shipley and Schwalbe list the “Eight Deadly Sins of E-mail,” urging us not to be vague, insulting, incriminating, cowardly, endless, sarcastic, casual or inappropriate. Their advice? Ask the following question before sending: “Would you deliver the same message if you were within punching distance?”

While Send adequately encapsulates the phenomenon of e-mail, the authors insist that e-mail is often an interruption. Here there may be some disagreement. While one could allow e-mail to become an intrusion by obsessively opening every e-mail upon receipt, e-mail can wait. It can sit in one’s inbox unopened until the recipient is ready to read it. In this way, e-mail exhibits far less urgency than a ringing phone or a personal visit. Letters, contrary to the authors’ opinion, are no less urgent than e-mail. E-mail is only an intrusion if one allows it to be. Ignoring or forgetting an e-mail, however, can cause problems. An unanswered e-mail from someone who has expressed an overture of friendship can have an unwanted cooling effect.

While Shipley and Schwalbe refer to the vast quantities of e-mail that inundate so many of us, “trillions of e-mails are sent every week,” they fail to address the common problem of managing an overflowing inbox. A whole chapter could be devoted to strategies for tracking and sorting e-mail, and is sorely needed. Instead, the authors advise us not to e-mail unnecessarily.

Overall, Shipley and Schwalbe do a thorough job of examining the topic of e-mail. In addition to handy and helpful tips, Send provides a wealth of trivia. When was the first e-mail sent? Who sent it? How many admins write and send e-mails under their boss’s name? How many admins delete e-mail before their bosses ever see it? What is the direct translation of the @ sign in Czech, Danish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Thai? It’s all here.

To e-mail or not to e-mail? If that is the question, do not “send.” Destined to be the Strunk and White of electronic communication, Shipley and Schwalbe get their message across. Their reference guide, Send, is destined to help generations of electronic communicators navigate the rough waters of e-mail and avoid the siren rocks of e-tastrophe. It is unfortunate that their names are not easier to say together 30 times fast without stopping: Shipley, Schwalbe, Shipley, Schwalbe…