Welcome to Towards Simplicity. I blog my goals, especially my reading and studies, and my ongoing downscaling and using up of material stuff and working towards a more minimalist lifestyle.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The perils of e-mail

Do you ever find yourself feeling that you're just going off e-mail?  From time to time, I do.

I've long thought that e-mail as a mode of communication brought out the worst in people.  For instance, if I were to come over to you at work and offer you some books I had that I thought you might be interested in, would you listen, then just walk away after having made no reply?  Probably not, but if someone fails to answer an e-mail from someone they knew offering them something (of course I don't mean adverts etc) with the intention of conveying 'no thanks' to them, they'd be doing the same thing!  When you look at it objectively, it's very rude indeed, but it happens a lot via e-mail.  No reply is expected to be understood as 'no', but, in actual fact, it's just no reply and it's very bad manners.  How long does it take to type back, 'Thanks, but I won't this time'?

Still, as someone who I teased for sending a brief group e-mail asking for any contact detail updates to all his e-mail contacts and asking for all their news in response said, 'it's easier to click than type'.  He did write all their latest when I reminded him that he was expecting us to type for him....=)

Some other instances of departure from politeness can be someone just launching into all the questions they have for you, failing to thank you for the help you gave them last time and so on.  I've had that.  No 'how are you?', no 'could I just ask a few things?', no 'thanks a lot for your time and help.'  Yet, I wonder if the person concerned would have been quite that brusque in person?  Or would they have remembered their manners?

My husband has a former business contact with two clients who aren't on speaking terms owing to misunderstandings by e-mail.  I can really see how this happens.  They say that only about 8% of communication is actually verbal, the rest being tone of voice, facial expression, body language etc.  For some reason too, we seem to get more warmth and feeling - more of the genuine person - when we read their hand-written letters than we do when facing just bare type on a computer screen.  Cold isn't in it!

When I've re-read some of my sent messages, I've realised that, esp. if the recipient doesn't know me that well and/or isn't likely to remember how much I joke around etc., so much could be taken totally the wrong way and, I fear, sometimes is!  What you mean as a supportive 'oh, that sounds hard work' comment can be read as utterly condescending and arrogant.  A comment on something stupid in society can too easily be seen as a dig at the person you're writing to.  As for teasing someone as you would be able to face to face, well, be prepared to be understood as dishing out quite sincere insults!

Ugh!  Sometimes it seems that no matter how often I read over and 'debug' my mails, I still manage to mess up.  What's the e-mail version of 'I only open my mouth to change feet?'  Perhaps one should leave e-mail almost entirely for business contacts and brief notes.  Of course, it's great for keeping in touch with distant friends and so on and often we don't even have each others' addresses anymore and one can feel like one's putting someone under obligation to physically write if one does oneself and, well, who bothers with that these days?

The speed of reply can be a stress too.  I don't often reply straight away - unless it's something I'm very keen about, or it's urgent.  I like to give it a little while and that's mostly because, with instant e-mails flying back and forth, one can quickly feel under pressure to get straight back to someone.  I confess to having a couple of messages in my in-box that I need to reply to in another language and I do get a bit lazy with them - they've been there some months now.  I will do it, and soon too, but I know that, once I do, within 48 hours, both will have replied and the whole thing starts again.  Don't get me wrong, I love hearing from friends, but it can get a bit 'in yer face' after a while.

I used to be seriously into 'penpalling' in my late teens and early 20s.  I had penpals that I wrote to in four or five languages all over the world.  It was a great way to learn and it was a real pleasure to get letters coming in from the four corners of the earth, with all their interesting addresses and pretty stamps to collect.  Apart from the fact that sending a letter costs three to five times as much now and I'm not sure I could really foot the postage bills these days, when was the last time we exchanged addresses with someone we wanted to keep in touch with?  You get mobile numbers, e-mail addresses and sometimes I get asked to be facebook friends instead.

Not having private addresses brings me to a slightly awkward situation where this issue crosses with the e-mail and cyber contact problem.  I didn't really expect to keep in touch with a former colleague, but something happened to him that moved me to try and offer some friendly support and to send an annual 'thinking of you on a tough day' message.  I got the contact details on the workplace website and normally send an e-card, the most recent of which just ended up looking like a fancy postcard and didn't even add the sender and recipients' names.  I now find myself stuck between this kind of impersonal and, frankly insincere looking stuff and either giving it up as a bad job (which, for other reasons, I think may be the best solution), or leaving innocent folk open to suspicion.  I only have access to his work address, and I see he has a secretary, who probably opens his post.  Now, what he chooses to share about things personal to him with current colleagues is totally his business, so I feel I should avoid her opening any card and/or note I sent in order to protect his privacy (and mine too, I suppose).  That would mean a card arriving where his wife wouldn't normally be able to see it, obviously in a female hand, when it wasn't his birthday and marked 'Personal'.  Are you with me?

Thoughtless gossip and all the harm it causes happens.  But's it's not happening if I can help it!  So, that leaves delightful old e-mail and it's relatives - and all it's wonderful ways of being misunderstood and causing unintentional annoyance.  Of course, it's not his fault and there's no earthly reason why he should have given me his private contact details and I wouldn't dream of asking for them from mutual acquaintances who might have them.  But, I want to do something kindly and helpful and can't help feeling I'm doomed to failure either by the glaring inadequacies of modern technology, or by the risk of folk making damaging assumptions.  Given that there certainly are guys who get mail at work from their extra-marital partners, (the boss at my first job was carrying on with a former colleague and got letters at work from her), and no-one is immune to trouble, I would hate to cause anyone - esp. not someone I'm trying to be nice to - avoidable difficulties.

Sigh...  Oh for the simple life again!  And stamps you can afford without needing a bank loan....

1 comment:

Rachel said...

I've just been going through a pile of letters from my parent's loft - letters I received when I was an undergraduate. It was lovely to hear again the voices of so many old friends and relatives - something the internet generation won't be able to do in the same way, but I must admit I find myself wondering whether we could all afford the postage now!