E-mail, Etiquette, and Friends

Category: Weekly Columns

E-mail etiquette is so ubiquitous that we forget that it isn’t talking on the phone or having a conversation in person.  Subtlety, facial expressions, or tonality are all lost in an e-mail message.  I have found this has gotten me in trouble when I think I’m being funny, subtle, or sarcastic in an e-mail.  And, the habit many of us have of forwarding a joke, photo, or an article creates even greater problems in many cases.

I think e-mail should probably be treated as Eliza Doolittle was advised in “My Fair Lady” about making conversation.  “Stick to the weather and health” was Professor Higgins’s caution.  Even that proved problematic as Eliza went into too much embarrassing detail about her own family’s health, before she completely blew it with her expletive encouraging one of the racehorses to “move your bloomin’ ass!”

I read recently that e-mail, like so many new technological innovations, may be receding in popularity among the younger generation in favor of instant messaging (on cell-phones and computers) or “tweeting” via Twitter, which is limited to something like 140 characters of text.  Acronyms are the norm and the list of these short cuts, like “ttyl” (talk to you later) or “btw” (by the way), just keep growing and growing.

Correspondence, like in the days of pen and ink, has gone the way of the horse and buggy.  But, e-mail is its own special creature and I’ve found it rampant with potential misunderstandings and strains on relationships.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stung by an e-mail reply to something I’ve sent out that I felt that person might really enjoy–or maybe, God forbid, learn something from.  “My bad” to quote my son as I’m learning that almost no one but those closest to you want such e-mail.

For me, it’s learning whole new behavior, rules, and etiquette.  And, there are actually some new rulebooks, though for me it’s been mostly learning by trial and error.  An early book on this subject is “Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home” by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. Amazon.com’s review said: Funny, engaging, and oh-so-practical, “Send” is the ultimate etiquette handbook for email, making David Shipley and Will Schwalbe the “Miss Manners” resource for the digital age. Full of practical insights, “Send” is an invaluable resource for anyone who uses e-mail, and is guaranteed to help you “think before you click.” I’m just not sure I want to consult it for every decision regarding e-mail.

My wife is very typical for a woman as she prefers to talk vs. correspond via e-mail with me, her husband.  When we’re apart, I think it’s easier to just put a sentence or two in an e-mail, especially if it’s just a simple question.  This is a case where I must take into consideration her feelings and pick up the phone and call. 

My boys, on the other hand, totally ignore my e-mail but respond instantly to a text message.  My younger son is truly glued to his cell-phone as he’s messaging his friends constantly.  It’s amazing.  I never see him on the phone unless it’s a fellow classmate calling about a homework issue or problem.  He also doesn’t make as many play dates as when he was in elementary school, though he clearly has many friends.  Is this emblematic of the times?

As for me, my biggest disappointment has been the reactions some friends to e-mail that I’ve sent with an article that I felt was important.  I don’t send anything of a political nature anymore to those friends who think the “other way,” but even many of my like-minded friends have asked me to stop sending them any e-mail of a non-personal nature.  If it’s to check on how they’re doing, make plans to get together, wish someone a happy birthday, or the like, it is fine.  Just don’t send them that healthcare column by a noted writer or something dealing with the Middle East.

I am a passionate man in everything I do, so when my friends react this way, it hurts and disappoints.  As I’ve often declared, most everyone knows where the delete button is and, if there’s respect for the person sending such an e-mail, how difficult is it to peruse a few sentences to see if it’s of interest.  Then, if it doesn’t grab you, just hit “delete.”  I have fought this for too long and am throwing in the towel.  Now, I just send out those sorts of e-mail to the much-reduced list of friends and family that welcome them and often send me the same in return.

Our children are growing up with this and other technology and it will all be a part of their lives hereafter.  They don’t have memories of 8-track tapes, reel-to-reel recording tape, LPs, or transistor radios.  To them, early cell-phones were big and clunky.  So, I will bet they will develop an instinctual knowledge of e-mail and other new-tech etiquette.  As it evolves, they’ll evolve with it.  But, for my generation, and me it’s a struggle in the same way my parents could never learn to program their video tape recorder or store a phone number in a cell-phone.