May 21, 2000
E-mail brings mixed bag of blunders, blessings
(Published May 21, 2000)
In this time of commencement speeches -- of "crossing that bridge," "climbing that mountain," "reaching those stars" -- Disney chairman Michael Eisner sounded a different note this month in Los Angeles.
Go forth. And beware of e-mail.
"I have come to believe," Eisner told University of Southern California graduates, "that if anything will bring about the downfall of a company, or maybe a country, it is blind copies of e-mails that should never have been sent in the first place."
Eisner -- who accidentally e-mailed Disney's corporate earnings to an ABC News employee before their public release -- isn't saying e-mail is all bad. Far from it. It's the invention that bolstered businesses, saved stock portfolios, reunited old friends, introduced new ones, rescued the lonely.
In short, electronic mail hooked up the world -- and in my case, Kansas with California, meaning I now get daily communiques from home, hot tidbits like: Dad's three-pound walleye, the weather, chicken dinner with Sadie and Hap, the weather, barber Jim's brown recluse spider bite, the weather, LeRoy's eye surgery, the weather, a review of the Kingston Trio concert, the weather.
All this, right on the spot. It's so gratifyingly instant.
Except Eisner is right: E-mail isn't perfect. While diabolical nerds unleash new rounds of killer viruses, the rest of us have made some fine messes of our own. "Because it's spread so fast, it has raced ahead of our abilities to fully adapt to this new form of communication," Eisner cautioned the USC grads, calling them "the first class of e-mail."
What makes e-mail so wonderful is also what makes it so awful at times. When you remove body language, nuance and inflection from any form of communication -- and make it quick, easy and instantaneous, besides -- misunderstandings are inevitable. A survey to be released this week on e-mail behavior in the workplace found that 51 percent felt the tone of their e-mail was sometimes misunderstood.
"My e-mails are very deliberately crafted, yet often are perceived as harsh," wrote one respondent in the survey by Vault.com, an Internet site for career and human resources information.
Wrote another: "I wrote a question to (my boss) one day; she thought I was being insubordinate by the tone. I almost lost my job!"
At Disney, Eisner said he has recently noted that "the intensity of emotions inside our competitive company is higher than usual."
"I am convinced this is because of e-mail," he said. "Every fight that goes on seems to start with a misunderstanding over an e-mail."
It boils down to thinking before clicking. We've all had those moments when impulse, haste or pure emotion drive us to fire off a message, to tell it like it really is. Then -- just as it disappears from the screen -- clarity descends, and we realize: We didn't mean that at all.
Or, we sent it to the wrong person.
A friend of mine once worked for a company where two co-workers were rumored to be having an affair. This was positively confirmed when one of them inadvertently routed a love note onto the global e-mail system at work, and -- presto! -- up it popped for all to see.
"There was just dead silence," my friend recalled. "Everything shut down. Then there was all this murmuring."
Despite the catastrophes, e-mail is here to stay, and we'd better get used to it. A full 80 percent of those surveyed by Vault.com said e-mail had replaced snail mail for the majority of their business correspondence; about 72 percent said that e-mail had replaced faxing; and 45 percent said that e-mail had replaced phone calls.
This has spawned a nice new niche for consultants, who are offering individuals and businesses lessons in e-mail etiquette -- or "Netiquette," as they like to say.
"In this age of technology, we have forgotten our social niceties," said Lisa Mirza Grotts of the AML Group in San Francisco, which specializes in etiquette and protocol, including "Netiquette."
Among the most annoying transgressions, especially in business e-mail:
- Capitalizing text. IT IS LIKE SHOUTING!!!
- Forwarding dirty or offensive material.
- Clogging others' e-mail with dumb jokes, chain letters, silly lists and breathless urban legends.
- Sending sloppy, unedited text with typos, misspellings, grammatical errors or other tip-offs that you are lazy or illiterate.
"One should never, ever, ever put anything in writing you don't want to see on the cover of the New York Times," said Mirza, a former Sacramentan.
The bottom line is, cyber-civility isn't that hard; it just takes practice.
And what a payoff.
As nuclear families break up and generations scatter, e-mail is the thread that reunifies, opening a shared window in our daily lives. Unlike snail mail, news from home now arrives in colorful, timely bursts: Evan's triple hit, Jim and Vera's rhubarb pie, Dad's bird feeder with a "squirrel guarantee," Mom's luncheon at Sirloin Stockade.
And in case you're wondering, it's sunny and warm in central Kansas. Chance of thundershowers today.