Monday, August 30, 2010

Email, Communication Letdown

I'm not going to whine about the death of a letter-writing culture (though I might cry a little on the inside), but I've received some awfully written or just plain awful emails lately that have me wondering if the people who write them realize how they are going to be read. And by that I mean they come off as total asses, and I can't help but wonder if it's intentional, if it's people's general inability to express themselves with the appropriate delivery, or if email is just hopeless at replacing richer forms of communication.

I can separate myself from this because the emails I'm talking about are work or otherwise non-personal emails. The one exception are the emails of a professor whose e-writing is not awful, just unexpectedly curt. I'm beginning to think this is a lame thing to write about, but what fired me up to say something on it was a super bitchy email from someone I'd never talked to before.

So what makes a nasty email, or at least an email that doesn't convey the openness or friendliness that should be there between people doing business together? Here are a few examples...

The Intentional(?) Bitch
Short sentences are the first thing that get to me. The bitchy email started out with no greeting and four short sentences correcting an assumption I had made in my initial email to her, which had been very friendly and only asked for some information we needed to get moving on a project. After the whipping with the short sentences, they got longer and a little more open, to assure me that yes she does want to do business with us. But then she told me to talk to a higher up at my company about it, and ended with a signature block. This was delivered with a "don't bother me, underling" sort of curtness. Sorry lady but you can't just talk to the boss. Do you have an underling you can refer me to so you don't have to talk to me?

Rule number one then, I would have to say, is always use a greeting! Unless you know someone well or are sending an interoffice email, you should greet the person you are talking to, even if you have something bitchy to say to them. If you're mad, just put their name. But most of the time, you are just doing business as usual and a "Hi Robyn," would be nice. I always use "Hi."

Rule number two, based on this email and other curt communications I've received, is don't use a lot of short sentences in a row. It reads as if you are scolding someone. If you need to use a short sentence or be otherwise curt to make a point, don't make a whole email out of it. It's just rude.

Rule number three, if something is being done for you or you are making a deal, you should probably work a thank you in there somewhere. This isn't necessary once you're working with a client or vendor for a long time, or if you're just doing regular maintenance on something. But when you are getting the ball rolling and someone outside your company has to do some work, for instance, to sell your product, maybe you should type "Thanks!" before the signoff. Or don't, and I'll move you to the bottom of the to-do pile.

These are good rules to follow if you don't want to come off as a bitch or a jerk. But I think some email writers revel in the lack of warmth, the apathy, and the distaste they can deliver through the cold medium of email. They wouldn't be able to pull that off in person or on the phone, so they hand it down to you from their office (which is probably in a closet but they want you to imagine it as a penthouse) with their fancy email signature.

The Poor Writer, made Poorer
Sometimes emails read badly because the person writing them doesn't write well in the first place. When letter writing was our written form of communication, poor writers could choose to speak to someone in person. Since the 20th century we've had businesspeople, and they almost always like to speak in person or make a phone call. That works better for sales, but I think this is also because most of them can't write. 21st century communication has gone back to the written, as email, social media, and texting replace phone calls. The learning curve for using these media is quickly surmounted in a world of habitual tech users, but the learning curve for re-learning to write is a little steeper.

I contacted someone with a proposal and he replied from a different email address, using only his name and not the name of the company, and my email was not below his like in a reply email: "Send details." It took me a day to figure out who the email was from. I couldn't help myself -- I sent back a friendly email with the information, but also explained that I can't tell who you are if you don't reference my email or use a subject heading. I used friendly sentences, not short ones. He probably though I was a bitch anyway. But shit like that happens all the time! Anyhow, once our business relationship began I noticed all this guy's emails were short, curt, and terribly written. At first I'd thought he was an asshole. Then I figured out he just can't write. He was very thankful for our services in later emails, and even contacted me again recently to ask for ideas on something. Same bad writing, but after months of emailing with this person I now know he's a good guy.

I don't know what the moral of this story is, except that you should write emails knowing that people will read them, and however you come off (stupid, mean, confused...) could affect how the recipient of your slovenly word pile chooses to do business with you.

Flouting the Email
The final sort of email that always makes me angry when I first see it (then I soften to it) is the email that sort of flouts the coldness and impersonality of email. This could be done in a funny and friendly way if you're emailing someone you know well, but when I read emails from (or facebook comments by) a certain professor I get the feeling I'm watching some kind of personal experiment in writing coldly. There's no way this person doesn't know how to write, and there's no way this person would be intentionally mean or curt. This person is extremely warm and friendly face-to-face. It could be a disconnect in writing/speaking personalities, but I think it's intentional. It's a way to explore being a different type of communicator, which is kind of cool.

End Thoughts
It's funny that many of us think of email as impersonal in the first place. When a good writer sends an email, it can be full of warmth, excitement, subtext, everything we expect from other types of communication, even a letter. So I think the biggest problem with email is just that so many people have to write it. Inevitably, much of it will be bad. These people never wrote letters when they had the chance (we writers could still write letters, but the recipients of our little packages might think us strange), and were thrown into writing by technological and temporal demands. Email is what people do, it is fast, and we can get to it on our own schedules. It is a means to an end, for most. The fact that an email is typed characters on a screen does add some sterility to it, but that can't be blamed for everything. Novels and poems are typed characters on a page, a sterile sort of method of conveyance, especially in the form of a crummy new edition (or on a Kindle!) -- but novelists and poets have the gift that gives words life even without the flourish of a pen to emphasize them or the warmth of a voice to read them. We can't say the same for every wretch who owns an email address.


  1. I think I've rubbed off on you ;p

    I also take great offense at bitchy e-mails. The one I always remember is that one editor that chewed me out over something that was partly her fault. Talk about a high horse, she felt the need to repeatedly reiterate that she had worked as a lawyer for social justice or some such bullshit. My thought was, "Wow, and you're still a horrible person. That's quite the accomplishment."

    Of course, nothing can top when someone asks you to e-mail them and you do and they never get back to you. That's just freaking rude. But now I'm straying into tangent territory.

    Sorry to hear you had a run-in with such a pain in the ass. They're the worst :)

  2. I think a lot of people don't think when they write an email. Often e-speak offends unintentionally because it is difficult to pick up tone when communicating online. But I agree that it is sort of a symptom of our technology dependent society.

    I think when a letter was sent through postage in the "olden days" you could gather a little more what emotions were conveyed because the person sending the letter took the time to actually post it. Sometimes the ink was darker on certain words and you could imagine they may have been pressing their pen or pencil more harshly because they were anxious or upset. Email is terse and available. We don't have to put so much into it because it can be sent and received in a flash.

    On another note regarding greetings:
    My old supervisor used to start every email with a long "Memo" opening stating that it was to me, from her the date etc. She would send me these things when I was sitting at the desk next to her. One time the memo entry was longer than the email it self (no thanks was given at the end.)
    Because I couldn't take it anymore I returned the email with all the headings that she used, but my text simply read: O.K.


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