When I wrote about psychological insights into e-mail in the New York Times and on this blog, a tide of responses came washing through which have refined my own thinking. My appreciation goes to all those who wrote in.
First, let me confess to a fundamental flaw: while I made a sharp distinction between communication face-to-face or by phone, on the one hand, and e-mail on the other, I failed to compare e-mail and old-fashioned letters.
As one reader noted, “Writing is always better with review and revision.” That careful reconsideration was a far more common practice back in the more leisurely day when writing a letter could take several drafts before the sender was satisfied. Rare is the e-mail that gets re-written, polished and sanded – and only then, sent.
I suspect one culprit is the lure of the “Send” button; this may well prime the brain’s premotor cortex to be a bit hair-trigger, shooting the e-mail across the Internet well before second thoughts have time to alter the message. This impulsivity, when driven by the amygdala (that is, when we feel peeved and the like), has been called the “online disinhibition effect,” or, more commonly, flaming.
Then there’s the accelerated pace of life. E-mail seems the perfect medium for a hectic day: get that thought down and shoot it out. None of this encourages a thoughtful re-read or revision.
Letter-writing for centuries was a high literary form; people put great thought into their words, and labored over style. They were more likely to make sure a letter was worth sending before posting it. Consider the numerous volumes of “Collected Letters of…”, from Einstein to Saint Theresa. This genre makes great reading; some are movingly heartfelt, others elegantly argued essays.
There are no such volumes of collected e-mails. I doubt there ever will be.
One software architect – who actually wrote one of the first e-mail programs – bemoaned the Blackberry, which reduces the already truncated information value of an email; it’s not just the emotional nuances that go missing, but a good deal of the manifest content. The main reason: Blackberries and their ilk encourage people to go over their email while in the midst of something else, like a meeting. So email ends up scanned, not read.
On the other hand, a healthy school of thought endorses emoticons like these🙂 🙁 along with ellipses…and exclamation points! These visual aids definitely add a degree of nuance and a bit of feeling to the written page (and may partly capture some of the emotive capacity of handwriting). I see them as better than nothing, but nowhere near as rich as a phone call or face-to-face encounter.
To be sure, the e-mail future may incorporate more Skype calls with webcams, to bring the richness of voice and face to Internet communication. That was a solution a manger for a global Korean firm found when worldwide email communications were not working well. As he notes with the webcams, “You can see each other in their offices, and get a real sense of being there. The phone calls take longer, are more relaxed, allow for a broader discussion and importantly, make everyone feel more connected.”