When Should We Email?
Would you carry a violin in a damp knapsack? Would you wrap your fiancée's birthday present in used cheesecloth? Would you mail your grandmother's stemware in a paper bag?
How you send something can have a profound impact on what you're sending. Your method of delivery sends a message of its own.
Here's the verbatim text of an electronic message sent to the phone of Katy Tanner, age twenty-one, who worked for a hip fashion store in Wales:
We've reviewed your sales figures and they are not really up to the level we need. As a result, we will not require your services anymore. Thank you for your time with us.
There's a trend here. Radio Shack did the same thing recently, telling about four hundred workers by email that they were being fired.
The workforce reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated.
Nice. We need to remind ourselves that just because we have email, we shouldn't use it for everything. Because of the speed and the seeming urgency of the new forms of communication available to us, many people simply grab the closest thing at hand. Or they get lured into eye-for- an-eye exchanges: if they get an email, they reply by email; if they get a letter, they feel compelled to respond by letter. We can do better than that. It's really a matter of taking the time to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each form of communication before committing to one.
That said, figuring out what medium is right for what message can be confusing. Today there are more ways to communicate than ever before. When should you email? And when is a text message more effective? How about a letter, or picking up the phone? (You remember those?) Or even a personal visit?
Or-and this seems to be one of the most effective and least used options-simply doing nothing at all.
Take one item from each column. Which of these go together? Try to mix and match:
Email Boss Casual Request
Text Friend Urgent Solicitation
Mail Colleague Routine Thank-you
Phone Assistant Unexpected Critique
Fax Mentor Emotional Apology
It's not clear-cut, is it? Do you text a friend a routine thank-you? Or do you phone? Do you fax a colleague an unexpected critique? Or will email work for all of the above? To find your way to the best decision, you need to understand the communication technologies at your disposal. Let's start with the strengths and weaknesses of the one that many of us use the most and understand the least.
Seven Big Reasons to Love Email
1. Email is the best medium ever created for exchanging essential information. What time is the movie? Where is the restaurant? Who's coming to the meeting?
Before email, any one of these questions would have involved at minimum a call, often to someone who wasn't there, necessitating a message (possibly garbled by a third party on one of those awful pink message slips). The return call might meet a similar fate.
And say your call wasn't one of the 70 percent that, according to Bill Gates, wind up in voice mail, and that you did manage to connect easily. Etiquette demands that you enter into a far longer exchange than the answer to your question strictly requires. At the very least, you are obligated to engage in several minutes of pleasant but not particularly productive conversation, whether or not you have time to spare.
Email has been blamed for the death of the letter. We think that's unfair. Email is responsible for the death of the useless phone call. (And, by the way, it was the telephone that killed the letter.)
When Will was editor in chief of a publishing house in the early 1990s, he used to receive fifty to sixty phone calls a day-and not one email. Twenty years later, at a different publishing house, he received only ten to fifteen calls daily. Much of what used to require a phone call can now be taken care of more efficiently with email.
But as the Cat in the Hat says, "That's not all!"
2. You can reach almost anyone on email-and not just businesspeople. Recently, Duncan Watts, a sociologist at Columbia University, updated for email the famous "six degrees of separation" study, which demonstrated that anyone can be connected to any other person through a chain of no more than six acquaintances. Watts asked the people participating in his study to see if they could get an email message to someone they didn't know: "a professor at an Ivy League university, an archival inspector in Estonia, a technology consultant in India, a policeman in Australia, and a veterinarian in the Norwegian Army." The catch was that you could forward a message only to someone you knew. The forwarded messages that hit their targets did so after an average of only four connections.
Another clear benefit: You can get your message to a list of a half- dozen or one thousand people as easily and inexpensively as you can get it to one person. And most email addresses can be easily found or sleuthed.
3. Email knows no time zones-it's an efficient and economical way to communicate with people around the world. You can also write an email any time of the day or night and have it sent the minute it's finished- or, if you are moderately clever, program it to be sent hours, or even days, later.
4. Email gives you a searchable record. Even if you do make an efficient phone call, there's no record of it. Are you going to trust the other person's "notes"?
5. Email allows you to craft your message-or your response-on your terms and on your own schedule. Unlike a conversation, email gives you time to think about what you want to say.
6. You have the choice of preserving and presenting parts or all of a string of preexisting emails. This enables you to refer to what came before, to bring newcomers up to date, or, without anyone knowing, to delete irrelevant or inappropriate parts of the correspondence.
7. Email lets you attach and include additional information that the recipient can retrieve when and if he chooses. This means instant access to maps, supporting documents, photographs, charts, spreadsheets, links, and so on.
A Brief History of Email,
for Anyone Who Cares
In the early 1960s, the Pentagon decided that it needed to be able to harness the power of all its computers more quickly. (To respond to things like, oh, Soviet missile launches.) So it asked its re- search arm-the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA-to build the world's first computer network. The project, called ARPANET, connected UCLA to Stanford on October 29, 1969. The first message sent over this network was "LO"-although it would have been "LOGIN" if the computer hadn't crashed.
The world's first email-a small message between two ARPANET computers- was sent a couple of years later, in 1971. By this time, each user of an ARPANET computer had a rudimentary "mailbox." Ray Tomlinson, a computer scientist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, devised a simple address for messages sent from one user to another, using the user's account and the computer's name, separated by an @. As Tomlinson remembers it, the first message he sent was gibberish: the computers were in the same room, and Tomlinson was both the sender and receiver, so he didn't bother with a sentimental or grand historic declaration.
Initially, ARPANET's physical network consisted of a few long-range connections between the East and the West Coasts. But it grew, and in 1983 the network was split into military and civilian branches. (The military's branch was renamed MILNET; we civilians were given ARPANET.)
By the time it sprang free, ARPANET wasn't the only civilian network around. Research groups and organizations in the civilian world had started to establish computer networks of their own. These networks would soon merge with ARPANET to form the early Internet.
For that integration to take place, however, computers in these different networks needed to be able to talk to each other. They needed a simple, efficient protocol for sending information. Enter TCP/ IP, which had been created in 1974 but wasn't adopted by ARPANET and other networks until New Year's Day, 1983. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, TCP/IP is still the standard protocol of the Internet. IP (or Internet Protocol) deals with addresses while TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) regulates the way messages are divided up and sent.
Once the rules were in place, competing services started popping up everywhere, as telecom companies entered the fray. In 1983, MCI introduced MCI Mail, which charged subscribers forty-five cents to send a 500-character message. (This came with a special feature: MCI would call users to tell them they had received electronic mail.) CompuServe jumped in the game, as did America Online, which (wisely and lucratively) positioned itself as the service for people who were uncomfortable with, or new to, computers. Lotus, Microsoft, and others introduced products that made it simple for businesses to use email companywide. Suddenly, email wasn't so scary anymore. The rest is history.
Eight Reasons You May Not Want to Email
Email's strengths are also its weaknesses. We're going to explore these at some length-not because we're negative guys but because you can't be certain that email is the appropriate mode for a message until you've considered all of its limitations and dangers.
1. The ease of email encourages unnecessary exchanges. Because it's so easy to engage in brief exchanges on email, people email way too often. They ask questions when they don't really need the answers (or when they could have found the answer another way). They also send information that doesn't need to be sent and extend conversations long past their expiration date.
That's not to say we're against all unnecessary exchanges. A casual encounter, whether in person or on email, can cement a social bond and sometimes even lead you to information that proves useful later.
Rule: If you wouldn't stop by a colleague's office every ten minutes for a chat, you probably don't want to email him frivolously thirty times a day.
2. Email has largely replaced the phone call, but not every phone call should be replaced. Because email is at a physical and temporal remove, it can be an awkward tool for reaching agreement, finding common ground, or bringing things to a close.
Rule: Conveying an emotion, handling a delicate situation, testing the waters-all these challenges are usually better undertaken with the human voice.
3. You can reach everyone, but everyone can reach you. The world of email appears hierarchy-free. Many people who were once out of reach are now, theoretically, within grasp. Many CEOs read their emails unscreened-whereas an unfamiliar, inappropriate letter isn't likely to get past an assistant. We all get plenty of emails every day from people we've never met-people to whom we have never given our private email addresses-simply because these individuals have found their way to our personal inboxes by some not-so-hard-to-divine combination of first initials, last name, and corporate address . . . or just by searching the Internet.
This flatness has its egalitarian appeal, but it's also a source of genuine confusion because it fosters a lack of formality that's often misguided. If you were a new employee in, say, tech support, you wouldn't dream of walking into the CEO's office with a minor complaint. If you were a student, you wouldn't think of calling your professor in the middle of the night with a question about an assignment you didn't understand because you were hungover in class. And if you were going to make a presentation in a foreign place, you'd learn about local etiquette and rules first-and not simply barge into a conference room in, say, Dubai or Seoul.
Email is both so intimate and so easy that it makes unwise actions far more likely: once you have someone's address, you can contact that person any time of the day or night from your very own office or bedroom. This once unimaginable access clouds our ability to discern who we are in relation to the person we're writing. Consequently, people issue wildly inappropriate requests to their correspondents that can damage their relationships and derail their careers.
Some of the most telling conversations we've had are with professors and college admissions officers, who have seen the once-respectful divide that used to separate them from students and applicants evaporate with email.
David Haig, a head tutor in biology at Harvard, regularly gets emails from students he's never met that are addressed "Hey, Professor Haig," or "Hiya." And Bill Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at the university, tells us that he now receives long, slangy, and sometimes sloppy emails from applicants. While he made clear that these messages don't cause a student to be rejected out of hand, they do at times make him question the judgment of the writer, especially if there are other concerns. "Ever since email came on the scene," he said, "there are people who have thought, wrongly, that there are different rules with regard to familiarity-that all bets are off because it is a different medium."
The students sending these emails seem painfully un- aware that the person they are writing to (and annoying) is the same person who could be offering them a place in a freshman class or grading them at term's end.
A related problem is how to separate the genuinely familiar from the overly familiar. The Subject line or the sender's name can sometimes indicate which messages you'll want to read right away, which can wait, and which ones will aggravate you. But they aren't foolproof. And even programs with preview panes, which show you the message before you actually open it, only save you one click. You still have to read the thing.
For people fortunate enough to have assistants, email presents another problem. So much email is confidential that many companies prohibit executives from letting others access their email accounts. Busy people are left with the choice of sorting through an enormous inbox every day or of breaking the rules and entrusting their privacy (not to mention the power to send emails under their name) to someone else. After the World Economic Summit in Davos in 2006, a participant reported that one of the most hotly debated issues among global leaders was this: Should you allow support staff to manage your inbox?
A 2002 online poll conducted by the International Association of Administrative Professionals and the ePolicy Institute found that 43 percent of administrative assistants write and send emails under their boss's name; 29 percent are allowed to delete emails before their boss has seen them.
Here's what Bill Gates does. He has software that cuts his email intake from thousands of emails a day to about a hundred by letting through only those messages that come from people with whom he has corresponded in the past. The rest go to assistants who then sort and summarize them.
Rule: When it comes to outgoing messages, don't assume instant familiarity. And when it comes to incoming ones, try filters. But keep in mind that current filters are usually imprecise or overly restrictive. Until smarter filters come along, you should think twice before giving out your address.
Excerpted from SEND by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe Copyright © 2010 by David Shipley. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.