When email first worked its way into most workplaces, it was part of a dedicated system, a set of interconnected computers limited to little more than email itself, with batch runs of data at night and that sprocket paper to print out on – like a slightly more flexible telex machine. Then desktop computers became the norm, and finally laptops and smart phones.
Along the way our relationship to email gradually transformed.
What began as an effort to ease communication of written stuff – scientific papers, hard ideas, things that needed to be precisely expressed – between scientists, became a way for the rest of us to communicate everything in and around the world of work, family, and social relationships.
That’s when the problems began. Soon there was too much of it, all that communication, and at the same time it frequently misfired. We all suffer from information overload. And occasionally, we suffer from its opposite – information deprivation. Waiting for that email that never comes, we experience a peculiarly modern form of that disease that is as old as Adam and Eve – starving for something in the midst of plenty.
We’ve all had the experience of having had our feelings hurt by some email communication, and probably have hurt other people’s feelings. We’ve been copied on email we didn’t really want to know about, and we’ve been on the other end – we’ve revealed secrets, or had secrets revealed to us, that we did want to know about on the one hand, or were appalled at revealing on the other.
Email – can’t live with it, can’t live without it
Email communication, in short, is simultaneously messy, imperfect, overwhelming and impoverished. Too much and too little at the same time. It was begun for a different purpose, hijacked to fulfill a need for more communication faster, and became a blunt instrument no one can do without.
Now, of course, there are many additional, similar instruments – texting, and its ilk, Slack and other attempts to improve on email, and various other substitutes, but their basic purport is to replace immediate, face-to-face communication with a text-based, virtual, asynchronous alternative.
Overall, how well does text-based communication work?
The answer is, not surprisingly, not very well at all. The problems are inherent in the nature of the communication medium. Let’s look at why.
Asynchronous communications are, by definition, not in the moment
One of the chief features of email is also a very common cause of many of its most spectacular failures. You write something in the heat – or the freeze – of the moment and by the time the other person reads it, you’re no longer angry, or you’ve thought better of it, or it’s no longer relevant.
And yet the other person will read it as if you still mean it, or as if it offers clues to how you really think.
This is why you should never, ever, ever propose marriage, fire someone, or otherwise commit what the linguists call a performative utterance or indeed anything like it via email. A performative utterance is a phrase, that, when uttered, creates a new situation, accomplishes a deed, or changes a situation forever. As when a judge says, “I sentence you to thirty years hard labor,” or (on a happier occasion) a minister says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
Thus you should reserve email for the things that don’t depend on the moment heavily for context, meaning, or ethics. Make appointments via email. Request further information. Introduce yourself to a prospective client, even. But don’t send angry, heart-broken, drunken, or deliriously happy emails, texts, Slack communiques, or anything else where emotion is important. Because it’s left out of the words.
Even Shakespeare needs a great actor to deliver his lines with the necessary panache. Indeed the most famous, and famously opaque, stage direction comes from Shakespeare: exit, pursued by a bear. It comes from a late play by the Bard, A Winter’s Tale, and no one has any idea what it really means. Why a bear? There has been no mention of bears hitherto in the play, so what was Shakespeare thinking? Did he use a real bear, or an actor in a bear costume? We’ll never know, fully.
Email is a terribly blunt instrument. Use it sparingly, for limited purposes, and be prepared to repair the damage.