Our friend Miles loves his job in the entertainment industry, but he dreads opening his e-mail. He never knows what will jump out of his in-box and grab him by the throat. Messages between colleagues have become curt, rude, aggressive. Sentences are often mere commands, shortened to quick barks. There's a sense that to be nice in e-mail is to show weakness. It's gotten so bad that Miles is seeing a cognitive therapist to help him deal with the stress.
Welcome to the dark side. Sure, the digital revolution is awesome, the niftiest thing to come along since the wheel. Computers have made writing routine for people who almost never wrote before. Online bulletin boards, chat rooms, instant messages, Web pages, newsgroups, and the like have brought new meaning to the word "community." And e-mail has single-handedly revived the epistolary tradition, the venerable practice of writing letters.
But not everybody's cheering. Miles (he asked us not to use his real name) isn't the only one who finds this new world hard to take. Others grumble about spam assaults, wacko chain letters, waves of mass-forwarded jokes, in-your-face instant messages, Web sites to nowhere, boorish behavior in chat rooms, complicated downloads that tie up their computers, and rampant misinformation. Some people are so bummed by e-mail that they won't have anything to do with it. So there!
It's not hard to see what's happening. Like kids on their first visit to Toys "R" Us, we're experimenting with these new ways to communicate, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole or make a dump truck fly or see through the wrong end of a telescope. If we want to play nicely with others, boys and girls, we'll have to learn how to use our new toys.
The Mouse That Roared
A corporate president we know showed us an e-mail that a software developer had sent to her and a dozen other people in her company. The message announced plans for a training session and added: "Please let me know if you would be interested in attending or if you would like an underling to attend."
Ouch! Let's hope the training session wasn't about sensitivity in the workplace.
It's strange how online writing can bring out the tactless oaf in even the nicest person. The dunderhead who sent that e-mail would never have used the word "underling" in a memo to be tacked up on the office bulletin board. Yet there it was, dropped as casually as you please into a mailing to a long list of people. Why not use the PA system?
The next time you e-mail, show a little tact. For starters, adjust your attitude before you begin writing. Imagine how your message will look to the reader, and write the kind of e-mail you'd like to get if the tables were turned. When you've finished, reread the message before letting it go. Look for dissonant notes (like "underling"). As Jane, our editor, often says, "Leave no tone unturned." And never, never, never hit Send in anger-hit Send Later and store the radioactive material until you've cooled off.
Why bother being nice? Because it's too easy to be misunderstood when you're writing modem à modem. Let us count the ways: What's convenient shorthand for you may seem cold and abrupt, even nasty, to the reader. Small slights are magnified. A tiny, half-joking pout can look like a major hissy fit. The mildest of suggestions may sound like a rebuke. Subtlety, irony, and sarcasm can land with a thud. And in mass mailings, now an important part of office life, the chances for misunderstanding are multiplied by the number of readers.
Certainly, the computer has brought us closer together. But it's also turned us into a scrappy, suspicious bunch and made cyberspace a quarrelsome place. The plain truth is that connecting sometimes drives people apart. Virtual behavior is often bad behavior, perhaps because the speed and the anonymity of online writing give messages a hard edge. Is it any surprise that something written in a clipped, telegraphed manner comes across as gruff and snippy?
The very structure of e-mail encourages curtness. The blank subject line staring you in the face is a signal to state your business and get on with it, and almost precludes a warm message. The To and From fields seem to make salutations and greetings and signatures redundant or unnecessary. What we have here is the ideal breeding ground for rudeness.
Once upon a time, a huffy or overwrought letter-writer had a built-in cooling-off period-the time it took to address an envelope, find a stamp, and get to a mailbox. She could always change her mind along the way and tear up that nuclear missive. Chances are, you too have written letters that for one reason or another were never mailed.
But how many unwise e-mails have you intercepted in time? Almost everyone has regrets. One exec we know blew up when a pet item was vetoed from the company budget. The angry message, lamented for years afterward: "Fine, then take it out of my salary!" And you probably read about the CEO in Kansas City who made headlines when an overheated e-mail of his was leaked to a Yahoo message board and took on a life of its own. The company's stock plunged and he was forced to apologize.
What he needed was a tact-checker. Actually, the e-mail program Eudora has one, a feature called MoodWatch that's supposed to warn you when you're about to say something better left unsaid. Regrettably, the reviews haven't been good. A computer can help you think, but it can't think for you. So use your own judgment and watch your own mood.
We shudder to think what Dale Carnegie would make of cyberspace. Some wired types seem determined to lose friends and alienate people. Apparently manners aren't evolving as fast as technology, so it's cold out there. If you want to take the chill off, try doing these warm-up exercises next time you log on.
o Reacquaint yourself with a few quaint English words, like "please," "thanks," and "sorry." Why abandon the pleasantries merely because you're online? If you need something, ask-don't demand. Show your appreciation when someone's been helpful. And apologize when you step on toes.
o Go the extra word. Online writing doesn't have to be abrupt. You're not paying by the word; why sound like a classified ad?
o Be forgiving. Don't let an ill-mannered e-mail set you off. You didn't mean to be a horse's patoot when you went online, and the person who messaged you probably didn't either. Give him the benefit of the doubt.
o Use some of the courtesies of letter writing. A friendly greeting, a polite closing, and a name at the end can do plenty to thaw out a cold message.
o Be patient. Don't expect an immediate reply, especially when your message is unsolicited. If it's really a matter of life and death, don't e-mail-call 911.
o Set the right tone. It's better to sound too nice than not nice enough. Take out any word that might be hurtful, and stick in any that might warm up your message. We're not crazy about smiley-face symbols or cute abbreviations or bracketed asides (there's more about them in chapter 4), but if they'll help prevent a misunderstanding, then why not? Free-spirited doesn't have to be mean-spirited.
Before you can do all this, you'll need to grow a new set of antennae. Many of the old assumptions about behavior no longer compute. The world, particularly the world of work, isn't what it used to be. Technology has changed our jobs and has even affected how we look and dress and talk. In some offices, every day is casual Friday and five-o'clock shadow is considered sexy. In others, pets come to work and kids go to day care down the hall. Flex time, job sharing, telecommuting, and home offices have turned the workday upside down.
Manners, too, will have to evolve. You can't say the same thing in an e-mail, for example, that you'd say in person. Imagine you're a supervisor...