Saturday, May 05, 2007
Hey, before you send another e-mail, read this book!
By DAN BARNETT
So, which is it: Is the "hey" in the column title just a friendly attention-getter, or am I chiding you, Gentle Reader, to be more careful with what you send? It's hard to tell without some context. Imagine the title appearing as the subject line in an e-mail sent by your boss. Without further clarification, it's hard to tell whether it's a friendly note from a fellow book lover or whether your next employee evaluation will pretty much tank.
E-mail is ubiquitous. Besides that, it's everywhere. Fortunately, David Shipley (the Op-Ed page editor of the New York Times) and Will Schwalbe (editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books) have gone to bat for those adrift in a sea of electronic communications. Or something like that. The authors are most concerned about keeping e-mail simple -- not too simple since you may come across as terse -- but easily understandable. And that means avoiding angry words, attempts at sarcasm, and just plain lying. If you're going to lie, do it face to face.
"Send: The Essential Guide to e-mail for Office and Home" ($19.95 in hardcover from Knopf) is not about managing the abundance of e-mail (there are other guides for that) but about composing just the right e-mail for the occasion. Someone who missed the boat on that -- who proved in the end to be a little dinghy -- was one Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. During the height of the Katrina disaster, Brown sent the following e-mail to his staff: "If you'll look at my lovely FEMA attire you'll really vomit. I am a fashion god."
Shipley and Schwalbe point out that in just about a decade e-mail has changed the way the world communicates and has led to all kinds of (unreasonable) expectations. The authors note that "a 2006 survey asked office workers if they would consider it rude not to receive a response to an e-mail within three hours. Fifty percent said they would. What's more, one in 20 expected to hear back within five minutes."
"Send" is a thoughtful, practical and witty guide to leveraging e-mail's strengths while minimizing its weaknesses. There are lots of reasons to love e-mail; it's great for conveying "essential information"; it has an amazing reach. It creates a record that can be searched (good news for us if we're looking for notes to that last phone conversation; not so good for Enron executives). It gives us time to choose our words carefully.
Often we don't, though; we are seduced by the ease of e-mail and assume the recipients will get the "tone" of what we write. Yet, "if you don't consciously insert tone into an e-mail, a kind of universal default tone won't automatically be conveyed. Instead, the message written without regard to tone becomes a blank screen onto which the reader projects his own fears, prejudices and anxieties." For instance, if your boss writes with the question "Will you be late for the meeting?" it's hard to "hear" the tone.
On the other hand, though, save overt emotional expressions for the phone or in-person conversations. Because e-mail can be forwarded in an instant, the world now knows that an executive of a certain big company forgot his keys and got upset at his secretary. The secretary forwarded the note to the press and the executive resigned.
The bottom line: "Think before you send; send e-mail you would like to receive." Hey, that's good advice!
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.