One of the basic rules of good manners hammered into me at an early age was: Don’t impose! If one were to see a famous person in the street, for instance, it would be quite wrong to impose on that person’s time and privacy by introducing oneself.
It often seems to me that advances in personal-communications technology consist mainly of new ways for us to impose on each other. The cellphone, obliging us to hear one half of other people’s conversations, is the most egregious case. Email is not far behind in making new, often unwanted demands on our attention and time.
To be sure, some emails are a proper part of our daily work. Many just replace phone calls or paper mail. Many others, however — especially, as the Journal‘s own Jared Sandberg has noted in his Cubicle Culture column, those that come to us because our name is on someone’s “cc” list or part of a “reply to all” response — are impositions.
In Send, David Shipley and Will Schwalbe offer us help in separating the useful from the impositional and in making the useful more so. A combination stylebook and etiquette manual for email users, Send covers all the human, nontechnical aspects of email, from the use of “emoticons” (those little faces made up of punctuation symbols) to the legal perils of incautious emailing.
All the vexing matters that have crossed the mind of every emailer at one time or another are fully covered here. Should you use “urgent” flags? No, say the authors, nor the highly irritating “notify sender” box. Is it OK to put your entire message in an email subject line, text-message-wise? Yes, but close with EOM — “end of message” — so that the recipient won’t waste time opening the empty email. How to apologize for a tardy reply to someone’s email? Five different formulas are offered, with some words of encouragement: “Like you, that person [the one you’ve neglected to answer] probably has an overflowing email inbox … Enough people are feeling sufficiently overwhelmed that there exists a wellspring of understanding if you have failed to answer in a timely way.” Some of the advice is of universal applicability, though it is none the less needed for that. “Once you’ve made the move to first names … it is a mistake to go back to more formal address.” And, of course: “Be brief.”
Is email having any deep social or historical consequences? I can’t say I think so, and Send offers nothing that suggests so. Of their “Seven Big Reasons to Love Email,” only Reason No. 4 — “Email gives you a searchable record” — offers anything new over phone calls, paper letters and conversation. Even that advantage has a downside, as the chapter on legal perils explains. I note that my own children do not use email much, preferring instant messaging. Perhaps the whole thing is a transient phenomenon.
The “send” button itself is of course the greatest enemy of prudent and considerate emailing; our tendency to click on it without thinking is the source of much annoyance (if we’re lucky) and embarrassment (if we’re not). At the end of Send, the authors reveal that their title is intended as an acronym, guiding us to better emailing. Messages should be Simple, Effective, Necessary and aimed at getting something Done. (That last applies to workplace email, not notes to family and friends.)
Not bad advice. I wish that Messrs. Shipley and Schwalbe had not included some brief lessons on how to impose: “When making a large request of someone’s time, it can be helpful to propose a much smaller request first.” Helpful to whom? I think, too, that their list of “Big Moments in Email History” ought to have noted that computer-science guru Donald Knuth gave up email in 1990, a point in time at which the rest of us had only just heard of it.
Most of us are now beyond giving email up, even if we wanted to. All the more reason to welcome this is a handy little vade mecum, written with concision and good sense.