David Shipley and Will Schwalbe
New York: Alfred A. Knopf ©2007
This fantastic little book needs to be at the desk, in the home, in the hands of everyone who uses email. Period. Think of it as a dandy mix of Miss Manners, Daniel Goleman's Social Intelligence, Deborah Tannen's linguistics and gender studies, and any of David Pogue's Missing Manual computer help books. It's as much about how not to commit electronic career suicide or create family disasters as it is about anything grammatical or literate. More about reading the corporate culture and office politics than what format to use or what button to push, except for that tempting one labeled SEND. For that matter, all the principles apply to blogs, social media, and any electronic communication.
Starting off with the infamous messages sent from Michael Brown to his FEMA colleagues during the Katrina disaster and a discussion of "why do we email so badly," the authors remind us that email is not the only form of communication available — and that we would do well to assess the message before choosing the medium. A phone call may a better option. And sometimes, nothing beats a visit in person to make the point, smooth the waters, negotiate the deal, or assess the situation. The authors even acknowledge the value of snail-mail's hard-copy letters.
As they began writing the book, the authors found themselves in a familiar email loop: several short back-and-forth exchanges with their editor trying to set a schedule for part of the project. "By the time we had sorted out our timetable, three weeks had passed, lots of emails had been exchanged, and a question that should have taken one minute to answer had eaten up hours. We had come face-to-face with one of email's stealthiest characteristics: its ability to simulate forward motion. As Bob Geldof, the humanitarian rock musician, said, email is dangerous because it gives us 'a feeling of action' — even when nothing is happening."
The authors use the rest of the book to ask and answer several key questions:
- "Why do we send so many electronic messages that we never should have written?
- Why do things spin out of control so quickly?
- Why don't people remember that email leaves an indelible electronic record?
- Why do we forget to compose our messages carefully so that people will know what we want without having to guess?"
Their goal? "Email that is so effective that it cuts down on email." Amen.
The vehicle? A kind of sociology-and-anthropology discussion of language, business, relationships, office politics, and communication. SEND emphasizes the concept of "tone" as it applies to writing because the computer medium provides nothing but "a blank screen onto which the reader projects his own fears, prejudices, and anxieties." And we seem to have them by the bushel. "Email demands, then, that we figure out who we are in relation to the person we're writing and that we get our tone right from the outset." Easier said than done. Each of us is many things on our own and different things to many different people. That inability to adjust our interaction on the fly is one of the biggest challenges to creating written communication that is clear and effective. We can't adjust our message based on the typical (even if subconscious) verbal and visual cues received from our communication partner in face-to-face interactions.
Not many of us consider ourselves writers — or even think of ourselves as "writing for a living" — and yet, that's precisely the outcome of the growing use of email. Every one of us now writes for a living. And short of sending us all back to 8th-grade English class, the authors suggest we focus on the "overlooked" element of email that can make the daily electronic deluge seem overwhelming: "the quality of the messages we exchange." Then, we need to do our part and clean up our act.
Whether you're in the group of people who are old enough to know how to write appropriately but may not be comfortable with the technology of email, or you're one of the techno whiz kids who grew up with computers, cell phones, and instant messages but has a rather tenuous grasp of the written word and its social implications, you can benefit from exploring SEND's "Eight Deadly Sins of Email:
- The email that's unbelievably vague. ('Remember to do that thing.')
- The email that insults you so badly you have to get up from your desk. ('HOW CAN YOU NOT HAVE DONE THAT THING?!!!!')
- The email that puts you in jail. ('Please tell them that I asked you to sell that thing when it hit $70.')
- The email that's cowardly. ('Here's the thing: you're being let go.')
- The email that won't go away. (Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: that thing.)
- The email that's so sarcastic you have to get up from your desk. ('Smooth move on that thing. Really smooth.')
- The email that's too casual. ('Hiya! Any word on that admissions thing?')
- The email that's inappropriate. ('Want to come to my hotel room to discuss that thing?')"
SEND is also — surprise — an acronym for the best use of email. "S stands for Simple. E stands for Effective. N stands for Necessary. D stands for Done."
Of course, there's always a skeptic in the crowd: "Here's what Eliot Spitzer, New York's governor, had to say on the subject [of communicating information that might be legally sensitive] when he was state attorney general: 'Never talk when you can nod. And never write when you can talk. My only addendum is never put it in an email.'"