Send with care: E-mail netiquette

The New York Review of Books has an interesting review of *Send:The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home*, which discusses the importance of e-mail etiquette, some horror stories about e-mail (resulting from lack of etiquette), and suggested paradigms.  The review is called “Pandora’s Click.” (9/27/07).

Janet Malcolm, the reviewer, deems the book essential and likens e-mail to power tools where only the most lucky and skilled have used without telltale scrapes, bruises, cuts, or severed limbs, shocks, burns, etc.

“Incautious emailing has cost jobs, ruined friendships, threatened marriages, subverted projects, even led to jail time. ‘On email, people aren’t quite themselves,’ David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, the book’s authors, write. ‘They are angrier, less sympathetic, less aware, more easily wounded, even more gossipy and duplicitous. Email has a tendency to encourage the lesser angels of our nature.’ It also has the capacity for instant retribution. In one of their cautionary illustrations, Shipley and Schwalbe hold up an email exchange between an executive and a secretary at a large American company in China. The executive nastily wrote:

You locked me out of my office this evening because you assume I have my office key on my person. With immediate effect, you do not leave the office until you have checked with all the managers you support.

The secretary wrote back:

I locked the door because the office has been burgled in the past. Even though I’m your subordinate, please pay attention to politeness when you speak. This is the most basic human courtesy. You have your own keys. You forgot to bring them, but you still want to say it’s someone else’s fault.

“She then performed the two-click operation that sent copies of her and her boss’s emails to the entire staff of the company. Before long the exchange appeared in the Chinese press and led to the executive’s resignation.

“Another anecdote that Shipley and Schwalbe tell to illustrate email’s special killer combination of winking at our bad behavior and horribly punishing us for it also involves a boss and secretary. In this case, the secretary spilled ketchup on the boss’s trousers, and he wrote an email asking for the £4 it cost to have the trousers cleaned (the company was a British law firm). Receiving no reply, he pursued the matter. Finally he—and hundreds of people at the firm—received this email:

“Subject: Re: Ketchup trousers

“With reference to the email below, I must apologize for not getting back to you straight away but due to my mother’s sudden illness, death and funeral I have had more pressing issues than your £4.

“I apologize again for accidentally getting a few splashes of ketchup on your trousers. Obviously your financial need as a senior associate is greater than mine as a mere secretary.

“Having already spoken to and shown your email…to various partners, lawyers and trainees…, they kindly offered to do a collection to raise the £4.

I however declined their kind offer but should you feel the urgent need for the £4, it will be on my desk this afternoon. Jenny.”

Shipley and Schwalbe (authors of *Send*(note that): The email era has made necessary a special type of apology, the kind you have to make when you are the bonehead who fired off a ridiculously intemperate email or who accidentally sent an email to the person you were covertly trashing. In situations like these, our first inclination is to apologize via the medium that got us into so much trouble in the first place. Resist this inclination.”  And they note that the more grievous the sin, the more an e-mail apology trivializes the omission.

“The young make different mistakes on email than the middle- aged and old do. College students who send outrageous email requests to their teachers (addressed “Hiya Professor!”) or college applicants who write long, self-satisfied emails to admissions officers ‘seem painfully unaware that the person they are writing to (and annoying) is the same person who could be offering them a place in a freshman class or grading them at term’s end.’ The poor lambs don’t know better, and Send is good at setting them straight.”

E-mail suffers from two problems relative to letters: 1) that it lacks anything distinctive (like tone, or stationery, or penmanship) that might soften or humanize it and thus provide a blank screen onto which the reader projects a tone; and 2) that it can so easily be sent on to others that the writer never imagined when he/she sent it.  Thus Shipley and Schwalbe recommend a universal and almost unnatural niceness as an e-mail style. 

The reviewer notes: “Keep letting your correspondent know how much you like and respect him, praise and flatter him, constantly demonstrate your puppyish friendliness, and stick in exclamation points (and sometimes even smiling face icons) wherever possible. ‘The exclamation point is a lazy but effective way to combat email’s essential lack of tone,’ Shipley and Schwalbe write. ‘I’ll see you at the conference’ is a simple statement of fact. ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event.”

While some of the same concerns plague letter writing as well, many letter writers spend far longer formulating their words than e-mail writers and generally spend longer considering whether they want to send the message.  And those who later have second thoughts can often retrieve these letters from the mail table in a way that they can’t from the *sent* e-mail file.

“‘ We don’t think of ourselves as old, but we recall when the phone was a big deal,’ the fortysomething authors write. It won’t be long before email, too, stops being a big deal. The people who now use email to fire employees or propose marriage or disparage friends will realize that they were doing the equivalent of throwing fragile silks into the washing machine. As email’s novelty wears off and its limitations become clearer, we will revert to the telephone when something complex, intimate, or low-minded needs to be communicated. We will use email for straightforward business and social arrangements.”

For further discussion of how the Internet is a hard medium in which to build social capital, see Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, pp. 174-180.

See: Pandora’s Click (full review)


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