Sunday, November 7, 2010

Once Upon an Email

Why do people have such issues with email?

First and foremost, it’s 2010. We’ve had email, in one form or another, for about forty years now. Over 75% of us in North America have email (about 20% worldwide). It’s not really a new-fangled thing any more.

But still I have to deal with people who want to call me on the phone. I’m working on buying a house right now, and trying to get my real estate agent, my loan officer, or my escrow people to deal with me in email is like pulling teeth. I can’t seem to convince my doctors to communicate via email either. I know I’m a technogeek by profession, but seriously: get with the times people.

Basically, it’s like this: A conversation consists of a series of responses. Perhaps the first exchange in the conversation isn’t a response, but, if you think about it, many conversations are just picking up where a previous conversation left off, so even that first bit of communication is often a response. Now, if you call me on the phone, what you’re saying is that you want to deliver your responses at a time when it’s convenient for you, regardless of how convenient it may be (or not) for me. If I call you instead, it’s really the same thing, only reversed. If you insist on us talking face-to-face, it’s even worse. When you have a meeting at work, it’s often a time when it’s equally inconvenient for everyone, including the person who called the meeting. But when we communicate via email, each person can deliver their response at the time that’s most convenient for them. If you’re a morning person, you can respond to my emails first thing in the morning, when you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I, of course, will likely be sound asleep, or at best barely conscious. But then I can respond to your email in the middle of the night, when I’m most productive and you, perhaps, are long asleep.

Of course, we constantly hear cautionary tales about miscommunicating in email. After all, we’re told, you can’t see a person’s facial expression or read their body language, so you’re likely to misconstrue what they said. This is basically a giant crock of shit. People have been communicating with each other via letters for millenia. Hell, what do you think literature is? I can’t see Shakespeare’s facial expression while I’m reading Romeo and Juliet, but I’m pretty sure I know what he’s talking about. Ah, but people write emails hastily, we’re told. That’s the difference. Basically what this is saying is that email communication is “inferior” because people are too stupid to reread what they’ve written before they hit “send.” What kind of sense does that make? It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.

In an email, I can ask you more than one question at a time and not have to worry about you forgetting any of them. What happens if I try to ask you multiple questions in person? Just watch a press conference or listen to a call-in talk show to find out. But, in an email, all the questions are right there in front of you, easily referred back to. Not that that helps most people. The majority of the people I send multiple questions to in email don’t come even remotely close to answering them all. Personally, I intersperse my answers in the quoted email, answering each question or responding to each point; this insures that I don’t miss anything. I have been accused of being rude or mean in my emails because of this: that somehow I’m “dissecting” others’ emails to me and “attacking” the points therein. This, again, baffles me. How did “thorough” come to mean “rude”?

I’ve also been told that I say things in email I wouldn’t say face-to-face (and, to be fair, some say that other people do this as well). In my case at least, this is also bullshit. I don’t say anything to you that I don’t want you to hear, and the medium of delivery is irrelevant. I do think that most people feel they have a right to be more offended by an email than by a spoken comment though. I’ve had people get their nose completely out of joint in response to a comment that I made in email when I’ve made the same comment to them in person many times and they just smiled. Whether this is my fault or the fault of the receiver (and you can probably guess which opinion I favor), that doesn’t matter: either way, I feel fairly confident we can agree that it isn’t email’s fault.

In a business context, we’ve become utterly schizophrenic about email. Have an important business conversation in email and someone is sure to bitch you out for not just getting up and talking to the person “to avoid misunderstandings.” On the other hand, have a series of personal conversations about an important business topic and you’re bound to get bitched out sooner or later for not keeping a permanent record of the decisions you came to. When we have a business meeting, someone is supposed to take notes. Well, here’s a news flash: if you conduct the conversation via email, no one needs to take notes.

In fact, having a permanent record of the conversation is one of the main reasons I prefer email. Especially for confusing things like monetary amounts required for escrow. How am I supposed to remember what you told me on the phone three days later? I can barely understand it today. But do these people put things like that in email? No, they produce reams of incomprehensible legal documents that they want to get faxed around ad infinitum, and then they attach notes saying to call them if I have any questions. WTF???

Another thing that bugs me with email is the complete ignorance about how to use the “reply all” feature. I’m constantly reading things that tell people never to use this, because it’s “bad.” This is moronic. If you don’t want me to reply-all, don’t include the entire world in your distribution list in the first place. Other than the email equivalent of loudspeaker announcements (like company-wide emails), I always use reply-all. I’m assuming that if you CC’ed those people originally, you must want to keep them apprised of the topic at hand. And, likewise, if I CC someone on my email to you, you better reply-all when you reply. I actually have an acronym that I use when I forward an email from some moron who doesn’t comprehend how to use reply-all: OBOTR-AI, or “on behalf of the reply-all impaired” (occasionally abbreviated “AAARRRGGGHH!!!”). It’s amazing to me how difficult it’s been convincing these new house people to include Christy on their replies. Pointing out that Christy is the person who actually writes the checks doesn’t seem to do the trick. Pointing out that she checks her email more often than I do and therefore CC’ing her will get you a faster response doesn’t make an impression either. I’ve actually had to change my email signature to remind them to do it. This results in about a 50% success rate. Which I guess is about as good as I can reasonably hope for.

So here is this wonderful invention called “email” which radically increases my efficiency at communication, and I’m stuck dealing with people who can’t seem to use it. I have similar problems with instant messaging. I can easily conduct four or five simultaneous IM conversations, and often do other work at the same time, and still I have to deal with sending people an IM and then hearing the phone ring, or have them walking over to interrupt me. If I wanted to talk to you in person, I could have got up or picked up the phone myself: don’t screw up my workflow by deciding that face-to-face communication is “better” and doing me the favor of taking matters into your own hands. Even worse, don’t assume that I’m being lazy if I send you an IM when you’re three cubes away. That’s just insulting. I’m happy for you that you love to talk to people in person. Just keep it to yourself.

But unfortunately there’s no point in telling people this at the time. In the first place, they get all whiny about it. Like I’m insulting them by stating a preference for communicating more efficiently. (And, yes, it’s more efficient for them as well: just because they don’t like it doesn’t negate its advantages.) And then there’s the point that, if I didn’t have time to talk to you face-to-face, I sure as hell don’t have time to explain to you why I don’t have time to talk to you face-to-face. Overall quicker to just sigh to myself and stop what I’m doing and pray that I remember where I left off and give up and let you babble on. I hope your damn facial expressions and body language are worth it. Generally they’re not.

So I’ll soldier on and keep trying to communicate as best I can, and hope the rest of the world catches on at some point. Many people have. There are at least three or four people at work that I can count on to communicate with me electronically, and very effectively at that. I have no problem understanding what these people are saying, and I don’t miss seeing their faces. I see their faces every day anyway, sooner or later. These people give me hope that one day, when I move to the middle of the jungle or something like that, I will still be able to communicate with the world.

Well, the ones that count, anyway.

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