Shrinking the world after 4000 years

Quite a while back I read the book by John Freeman called Shrinking the World – the 4000 year story of how email came to rule our lives!  A ripping read, that contextualises email into the early 21st century communication systems as a derivative of human interactions through the ages.

We are now working in an era of constant interruptions. We nearly all have multiple email accounts which we use for a variety of purposes. Some eschew rapid communication still, of course,  along the lines of “oh I don’t want a gmail account, and please don’t expect me to create one so that I can participate in a google hangout for the conference/professional development/learning activity”.  Others of course have moved well on from email, making equally boring comments like “who uses email now anyway”?

If you work for a large organisation – as I do – the likelihood is that you will be using email. In fact, email remains a core professional communication tool alongside other forms of communication – Yammer being one example in my institution.

To be honest, I don’t have a problem with email – when it is used properly!   Ah, but there’s the catch.  Like any media tool, there are savvy users, and there are others.  And it is  the ‘others’ really who just confound the efficiency of the thing :-)

Freedman says:

One of the great paradoxes about email is that although it is created, driven and indelibly marked by ourselves, heavy use of it can leave you feeling emptied out, voided, fractured into a million bits and quips, yet somehow obliterated.

Overall his book is an attempt to step back from the frenzy and the flurry of now – the now we have created and the now we have to slowly remove ourselves from. He suggests that email is good for many things; but that we need to learn to use if far more sparingly, with far less dependency if we are to gain control of our lives.

I don’t agree with this – I think there are significantly  important points at the central purpose and value of email. Of course social media is giving us levels of connectivity across platforms, organisations and devices that email never set out to do.

But email itself, while still at the centre of an organisation, also needs to be used effectively. Let me tell you there are some basic aspects of email that can allow you to manage your workflow AND use the tool efficiently. Here are a few starting points: 

1. Don’t take forever to respond to an email message.  You may be busy, and if you haven’t time to give a considered and full response, have the courtesy to reply and indicate a timeline for response.  Not replying at all is discourteous.  If you can’t reply – put on your vacation message, or your ‘out of office’ message as a quick way to let people know that your inbox is in fact working.

2. Treat your students with respect. If you work in a tertiary institution treat students with the same respect you would accord to any adult you have contact with. I can’t tell you how many times students have been shocked to receive a reply from me the same day – they are accustomed to the (almost inexcusable) approach of treating virtual contact with students the same way as consultation hours with the tutor in a f2f setting – i.e. once or twice a week.

3. Use distribution lists or group lists to hold a conversation about a topic

4. Organise conversations logically. When in a group conversation – for heavens sake reply to the latest message.  The way that people fragment the conversation by simply replying to the first message, or one somewhere in-between is not only inefficient but also transparently discourteous.  If you were standing in a group around the water cooler – how would you feel if everyone simply acted as if you weren’t there.  Same thing.

4. For goodness sake use proper formatting.  We have a wonderful written language. We communicate in proper sentences when we write. We also speak sensibly and courteously with each other.  Yet for some reason, people apply kindergarten rules to email which look like this:

Dear Person I just like to write my comments all in one sentence and/or maybe a paragraph because it’s too hard to apply proper punctuation or even structure the message intelligibly and did you have a nice weekend Judy

While I can accept this in casual social media settings, to my way of thinking professional conversations in corporate email should also utilise the full affordances of the English language and supporting email structures.  I actually find it vaguely rude when a colleague doesn’t.

5. Turn on your auto-signature. I can’t tell you the number of times I have had to chase up a person’s contact details because the courtesy of having the full signature file is not utilised.  In a large organisation, transparency of conversation is essential.  If I need to phone you, or forward your email to another for response it should be clear who you are and in what capacity we are having our email conversations.

You’re probably thinking this is all very ‘old school’.  Perhaps it is!   But I’m convinced it’s part of the way to be professional, courteous and efficient with email until another tool arrives.

Image: cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by consumerfriendly

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