In times where access and intrusion abound, how can we preserve some of the niceties of life, some of the mores and manners that can make sharing the world with others just a little more pleasant and keep at bay Sartre’s somewhat sour declaration that “Hell is other people”? The speed and slickness of the digital age does not have to see common courtesies being glossed over, but, sadly, all too often they are. Far too frequently, especially with the now ubiquitous electronic mail, keys are pressed too hastily and an essentially impersonal medium becomes intensely personal, bereft moreover of the so-important cues, visual or otherwise, that are at the heart of courteous behaviour.
The digital age is here to stay, but there is little doubt that it has brought some challenges as well as some benefits. As technology entices us relentlessly towards the vicarious life lived through machines and gadgets, we are left with the choice to fight or flee, to succumb completely or to embrace with restraint. Surely it behooves us to do the latter and establish a few guiding principles just as we do in most areas of our lives. Therein may lie the potential for an organization and an individual to wrest back some control from the e-mail monster that has so changed our daily lives—and not always for the better. Heralded as part of the “information age,” signalling new and efficient ways to communicate and to disseminate information, e-mail has instead too often become a time-wasting distractor, a spam-spreading promulgator of everything from the inappropriate through the unwanted right to the thoroughly unwelcome. In most organizations, e-mail has gained a life of its own, devouring way too much of our time, our energy and our emotions, and most attempts to “tame the beast” have failed.
Perhaps that metaphor should be in the plural as the list of creatures spawned by the e-mail is a less-than-flattering collection of behaviours, all of which seem to roam unfettered through our daily lives with increasing frequency.
In a far from comprehensive list, we have first of all, the e-mail tiger, full of fangs and venom, roaring from behind the distant keyboard. Then there is the rabbit, copying and proliferating at will or, perhaps, the e-bull, as insensitive to feelings as is its namesake in the china shop. Maybe it’s the cornered cat, ready to lash out at perceived threats or the chimpanzee whose e-mail chatters constantly, mimicking what were previously human interactions. Surely as we indulge ourselves in the extended metaphor, it becomes apparent that it is indeed time to re-establish the human part of the communication process, the eloquent ability that has long distinguished us from the other ‘‘beasts of the field.” Let’s have people talking to each other, while practising some of the much-prized emotional intelligence involved in assessing body language, feelings and receptiveness.
Most schools will readily accept the notion that inter-personal skills, the ability to work in teams and in harmony are essential components of the future workplace for our young charges, but we fall into the trap too often of not “practising what we preach” or of role-modelling the opposite. Articulating thoughts and ideas that are clear and effective, but, most of all, genuine, is surely the way that we will combat the social isolationism of the digital age. Let’s not allow poorly crafted e-mails to dominate our working lives. Perhaps the following guidelines might help to combat at least seven of e-mail’s deadly sins and make all of our lives more pleasant in the process:
- Avoid communicating a concern by e-mail. Is that what you would actually say? Better to let someone know that you have a concern without expressing what it is.
- Always ask yourself if what you are sending is necessary to the recipient.
- Use distribution lists sparingly. Does everyone want or need that?
- Beware the “reply to all” setting on your e-mail configuration. Who is the reply really for?
- Treat e-mails as correspondence, so collect and service them no more than once or twice a day.
- Pick up the phone or, better still, get out from behind the screen!
- Proof-read (it gives you a chance to re-consider if you’ve broken some of the above!).
Wherever you turn, all of the wisdom circulating at educational conferences is stressing the importance of good communication skills, particularly in the realm of the inter-personal as I mentioned earlier. My contention, therefore, would be that courtesy, sensitivity to others and lack of aggression are at the heart of all successful human interaction and all too few e-mails are composed or sent with those features in mind. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the listening part that is a skill all of its own and one that will often colour your response. It’s hard to hear an e-mail!