In the age of 140 character tweets, super-bloggers that post just a few paragraphs at a time (hey, Paul Krugman – for a Nobel Prize winner, I really wish I could get more from you than a link to someone else’s article and a few nuggets of commentary), and facebook status updates that are at most 2 sentences, the power of e-mail seems to have lost its luster.
E-mail has never had a very good rap. Between viral forwards, the fact that its a transport mechanism for viruses themselves, and its quick reputation as “merely” an electronic replacement for written letters, and you don’t get very far. Plus, there has always been this issue of “tone.” Yeah yeah, we have all written an e-mail where we meant one thing, and the reader has gotten something completely different at the other end. Often, that misread has been a big one – you write what felt like a nice, diplomatic missive with a simple question, and the recipient takes offense and all hell breaks loose.
Twitter and Facebook status messages don’t have to deal with this, for the most part, because they are so darn short. How can someone take “feeling down today” the wrong way? There isn’t even enough text there to misread.
Obviously, this is leading to a personal situation, so read on…
A lot of the time this happens because there are so many presumptions that pop up right away. Today, I wrote a very simple e-mail that asked a basic question – will something come into conflict with an existing policy? The recipient is actually a very level-headed person and did a very reasonable thing – answer the question with more than adequate clarification and appropriate elaboration. Also very reasonably, he cc:’ed in a few other parties that would undeniably be involved in the discussion should it move forward. This is exactly what I would do in his position.
However, because it’s me, at the “rogue” law school, asking a question of the university-level group, many presumptions are made. My question must be an indication that I am planning on doing something. It can’t be just a question. We are this separatist group, apparently, so this is all part of some grand scheme to go off on our own. Or perhaps it’s a case of “there they go again.” Regardless, these all color the reading of the e-mail before it can even be opened, in many ways, and all hell breaks loose.
In this particular case, the ultimate response included condescension, quite a bit of insulting my intelligence, and all but an accusation that I don’t know how to do my job. Needless to say, this ruined what had been an otherwise solid day.
Still, I have faith in e-mail. I believe that it’s possible to write a message that is clear, diplomatic, and informative e-mail. My faith that the recipient will not misread my tone is perhaps not all that strong. But at the very least I can start with a solid foundation. And I do have faith that such a foundation can be built upon into a meaningful conversation.
What matters is whether the recipient is level-headed, and doesn’t presume too many things before jumping to conclusions.