In defense of the simple, unfashionable email
Deride it all you want - email is among the few recent non-medical inventions that have indisputably made the world a better place
The corporate world knows but a few dependable methods to get oneself fast-tracked. One, of course, is to be advocating change. Another is to swear by the open-plan office. The gold standard is to bemoan poor communication.
This latter tactic is in play whenever middle managers organize their features in a fluster and demand to know: “Can we just, like, talk to each other, people?” It is favored by strivers everywhere for its manipulative genius: one can negate neither the premise (we are not talking to each other enough) nor the prescription (let’s talk more) without seeming to “not get it.” In our conformist era, it's a spectacular faux-pas.
The feigned hatred of email is an ironic iteration of the fashion for change: email had become the norm, therefore it must be changed. Email-hatred is a dog-whistle that delivers an all-important message to the bigs: I embrace change.
There are several favored methods:
The most common is to complain with faux ennui about overflowing inboxes. The benefits of this position are tremendous. It tells the listener one is important; many seek one’s counsel and consent. It is an excuse for any failure to engage; one is deluged, through no fault of one’s own. It suggests prioritization skills; one makes others wait (if for no reason other than to convey this very point).
The second variant is advocating new tools to replace email. Social media was once part of this gambit but has fallen out of favor on account of having caused irreversible societal harm. So we have moved on to team collaboration tools like Slack. It takes courage to not pretend to like them, even though they amount to one more marginally useful thing to have to check, keep up with, and forget your password for.
The third form of projecting email-hatred is the objection to having been cced (or even worse, bcced, suggesting subterfuge). This method is a micro-aggression for attacking the sender’s judgment. After all, one must always cc those who might need (or want) to know; but one must also not cc those who would be annoyed and are not essential. The critique suggests the sender has failed in a matter that is perhaps the central balancing act of modern professional life. It is a foul, unsporting maneuver.
The fourth, and perhaps most nefarious, is the always dependable attack on length. Upper management generally smiles on the advocates of shorter emails, for it rings the bell of savings. The quest for brevity projects several key messages: the writer can focus on the essence; the writer is efficient; the writer values my time.
Sure, emails — like novels, songs, movies, and dinnertime tales — can be obnoxiously long. One must hold one’s audience; a joke cannot drag on.
But superficiality can also cause lack of clarity and confusion. Usually there is more than one option to a choice; often one must relate to an opposing point of view; there are points to be conceded, lest one cause offense; some background may be essential. But in the modern business world, sometimes none of this will matter. You may be trying to save the company headquarters from being blasted to ashes by an incoming asteroid, but if your emailed warning went over 150 words, the guy who says he “couldn’t get through it” will get the sympathetic nods.
Superficiality is a bedrock scourge of our era. Is it part of the change we must unfailingly embrace? It was a glorious day when Twitter bucked the trend it helped create by doubling the maximum character count to 280. But alas, that was the exception (interestingly, it made little difference in the actual length of tweets). Superficiality may be here to stay, at least until we blow up the world.
The fifth and currently most popular method to project email-hatred is to insist on verbal communication at all conceivable times. Back in the day of offices, strivers would march across the open-plan office and rhetorically inquire: “Did you really send me an email instead of just coming over and, you know, talking?” Few have the presence of mind to unapologetically answer: “Yes.”
I do recommend care with word counts and excess imperative. Never send an email when enraged or elated, and avoid sending anything you could not bear to have be public. But beyond these things, I say hold your digital ground.
Email has key advantages over meetings or discussions: grandstanding is less likely and a record is retained. Unless the minutes of a meeting are fastidious and fair, verbal communication leaves no provable trace and relies too much on memory; meetings increase the impact of hierarchy, so politics takes over.
Emails are among the few recent non-medical inventions (along with GPS, word processors and perhaps dumb mobile phones) that have indisputably made the world a better place. I feel some ownership of them for having been there at the beginning.
I remember when emails were the change.
It was the early 1980s, and I was a computer science student in Philadelphia. On my desk was a flickering screen that could send streams of characters back and forth, around the room or across the country. The computers were connected by early networks like the “Bitnet,” innocent harbingers of the hurricane to come.
At first we were sharing computer programs (today’s “code”); but soon it was words — communication. You could adjust them in a primitive “editor” (designed for writing code in the Pascal or Fortran “languages”) — and only then send. Within seconds they arrived.
I remember thinking: this will kill letters. There is simply no way that people will forever be scribbling down words on paper, whiting out mistakes, folding sheets and inserting into envelopes and buying stamps and waiting days while the thing is carried by state employees past deserts, tundras, volcanoes and oceans.
I realized that a form of romance would be lost: handwriting, for all its charms and lack of charms, would be relegated to the past. But the efficiency, I felt, would trump all with good reason. This thing, I could see, would spread beyond computer science departments and soon upend the world. I just didn’t know what they would be called.
I felt the intoxicating sensation of embracing change.