Why Emails Should be Short Instead of Nice

We’re suffering from outdated rules and expectations about email that don’t work in our email-saturated world.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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