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Summary:

We’re suffering from outdated rules and expectations about email that don’t work in our email-saturated world. Perhaps short emails without extra niceties are not just acceptable but preferable in our connected world on the web. Now that we have better ways of connecting on a human […]

We’re suffering from outdated rules and expectations about email that don’t work in our email-saturated world. Perhaps short emails without extra niceties are not just acceptable but preferable in our connected world on the web. Now that we have better ways of connecting on a human level (think IM, IRC, blogging) maybe we can put email back into its rightful place as merely a convenient way of communicating when we don’t have a real time connection, and not a means of creating intimacy or relationships.

Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian bemoans bogus email intimacy:

Perhaps, rather, the bizarre intimacy of strangers and colleagues in emails to me is symptomatic of a broader social malaise – namely we don’t know how to begin, and, worse yet, we don’t know how to end our emails. What’s more, because email is such a casual means of communication, it privileges those who prize informality. What happened to “Dear Sir”, “Yours faithfully” and the bracing pleasures of a firm handshake? I ask. They died, you reply, but nobody bothered to tell you, granddad.

Everyone’s so worried about offending by email that they try to make it more human and more friendly at the cost to everyone’s productivity, without a great increase in human connection. While short snappy emails and short snappy replies might come across as curt, research suggests that such messages lead to the highest productivity. That’s because short emails are easy to handle. They keep communications moving along in a way that long emails don’t.

But is higher productivity an acceptable tradeoff for what might be perceived as rudeness? In a world of connected productivity, you can get away with apparently brusque email messages because people will know you through other channels, channels that are better at building intimacy and connection. Email no longer bears the weight of our virtual interactions. Compared to chat, email’s horrible at building connections.

Email unfortunately suffers from its likeness to mailed letters — but it differs in an important respect, that people can send out hundreds or thousands of emails every day while no one could write that many letters. Teenagers of today may approach email more like instant messaging than like snail mail, and that might be just what our email overloaded work culture needs.

Of course, there will be many situations in which you’ll tread with utmost politeness: contacting a potential new boss, looking for new work, approaching your favorite author online. And preferring brevity over niceties doesn’t mean rudeness is okay. But for getting work done on a daily basis, we could all benefit from an email etiquette that calls for short and to-the-point messages.

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  1. Excellent Point. I have no time to go through those long emails.

  2. Juggling Frogs Tuesday, July 3, 2007

    I doubt that salutations and closings destroy productivity. The time wasting text is usually in the message body. The rules of polite correspondence haven’t changed. It was never correct to blather on and on in a business letter.

    It’s not “Dear Sir:” that people object to reading. The grumbling is about paragraphs of off-topic small talk, instead.

  3. Bob Grommes Tuesday, July 3, 2007

    You can write a tight, to-the-point, eloquent, clear message body, but if it’s longer than two sentences, in my experience it’s usually going to get mis-read or not read at all. We’re talking the MTV generation here folks, and worse, the iPod-and-Blackberry generation. The attention span has gone completely to hell and few jobs afford people time to think.

    For most recipients, write what you want, but assume only the first and last sentences will actually be paid attention to. If that. Re-read the first and last sentences by themselves before sending, and make sure they don’t convey completely the wrong idea.

  4. Anne Zelenka Tuesday, July 3, 2007

    @Juggling Frogs: I don’t think it’s the salutations and closings in themselves that are hard on productivity, but those are symbolic of the overall attempt to build relationships and be friendly and polite in email instead of just getting to the point. That doesn’t sound like a bad thing until you multiply it by the hundreds of email some people receive every day. Now that we have better ways of social grooming and building intimacy, we don’t have to put that pressure onto email.

    It would be so much easier if there was some general understanding that email communications aren’t curt or brusque just because they don’t have niceties you’d find in a written letter.

  5. I don’t think that you can really apply a blanket statement about pleasantries in email being bad in a work setting. I don’t think people who would be in sales and marketing would benefit by dropping all of the pleasantries in their emails. Their job revolves around forging relationships and trust, and pleasantries help them do that.

    I do agree that a lot of people out there don’t know the difference between sending email to someone in their company versus sending email to a relative or friend. This, however, is the result of people not understanding (or knowing) netiquette.

  6. Curt is the way to be in emails. Numbered lists for what you want done and no fluff.

  7. Anne Zelenka Tuesday, July 3, 2007

    Elise: you’re right, there aren’t any blanket rules to be applied. For my own email life, I’d love it if the default was short to-the-point emails with everything else optional. I really like short emails and I get so many long ones! Especially from PR people… but that’s a different topic.

  8. Drainedge Link Tank » Today’s Links Tuesday, July 3, 2007

    [...] Why Emails Should be Short Instead of Nice – Web Worker Daily [...]

  9. Juggling Frogs Tuesday, July 3, 2007

    I just finished working on a complex project with someone across town. We had multiple e-mail threads going about multiple issues, resulting in a dozen e-mail interactions a day for over a month.

    She drove me batty with her blackberry-induced half-sentence responses. The subject was always the name of the whole project. The body texts were often “what do U think?” or “okay,” or “let’s discuss”.

    Three e-mails and a phone call were required to track down which thread she meant. Back in the days of the telegram, when people received one cryptic message a month (at most), there might have been time to puzzle over the meaning of a single word message.

    The niceties discussed above give clarity and context. I think they save and frustration.

  10. If all you need to do is leave a quick, to-the-point message, why waste time with email at all? Instant Messaging and group chat are quickly becoming the defacto means of communication in the workplace. With enterprise solutions popping up all over the place offering things like AD integration and compliance archiving, it makes absolutely no sense to clog email boxes with endless ‘reply to’ chains of one line emails. Just fire up MOC, MindAlign, Jabber, whatever.

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