Poor Michael Brown. During the darkest days of the Hurricane Katrina debacle, Brown, then director of FEMA, the agency that so badly bungled the rescue efforts, sent this email: “Are you proud of me? Can I quit now? Can I go home?”
Emails can come back to haunt us – any of us. Few among us have mastered this medium, and only slowly are we realizing its dangers.
From the earliest days of email people “flamed”, sending off irritating or otherwise annoying messages. One explanation for the failure to inhibit our more unruly impulses online is a mismatch between the screen we stare at as we email, and the cues the social circuits of the brain use to navigate us through an interaction effectively: on email there is no tone of voice, no facial expression. When we talk to someone on the phone or face-to-face these circuits would ordinarily squelch impulses that will seem “off.”
Lacking these crucial cues, flaming occurs. It’s not just flaming – I’ve sent my fair share of emails that were, in retrospect, too familiar or formal, or otherwise wrong in tone, even downright embarrassing. Email invites these lapses in social intelligence in part because the social brain flies blind online.
In the absence of the other person’s real-time emotional signals we need to take a moment to shift from focusing on our own feelings and thoughts, and intentionally focus on the other person, even in absentia, and consider, How might this message come across?
The peril of being off-key is amplified by the temptation to hit SEND prematurely, before we’ve thought it over and had a chance to ease up on that too-stiff tone, drop that bit of sarcasm, and remember to ask about the kids.
In the old days of letter writing – a dying art – we had plenty of time to rewrite before sealing the envelope, and so flaming letters were far more rare than red-hot emails. And so the brave new world of email could benefit from a civilizing force, a voice that articulates the ground rules online.
Enter SEND: The Essential Guide to Email for Home and Office, a new book by David Shipley (an old friend of mine) and Will Schwaibe. SEND not only articulates the way to win – or keep – friends online, but offers practical tips on both email etiquette and on the writing style most suitable.
In this witty and wise book Shipley and Schwaibe give essential guidance on vital matters like the politics of using Cc (nobody likes to be left out); when to just reply and when to “Reply All”; the danger of the URGENT subject (too many and you cry wolf); fine-tuning your greetings to fit the relationship (if you use the wrong one, you can lose them at hello); how best to apologize online (put the word “sorry” in the subject or else the email may never be read).
But SEND is far more than Miss Manners for the Web; it’s brimming with fascinating insights. For example, now that email has become the way we talk, showing up in person has added impact as the ultimate compliment, signifying that the person, meeting or project has special importance for you.
Years ago a slim volume by Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, laid out the ground rules for good writing; the book became a bible for authors, widely known just as “Strunk and White.” SEND should make Shipley and Schwaibe the “Strunk and White” for the web.