Today I attended a seminar laid on by consultants who specialise in better use of email. It was patchy – there was some good stuff about being considerate with subject headings, and translating the accumulated 90 seconds of dealing with trivial email into whole days-worth of lost time for an organisation.
There were also some startles. The biggest was when the seminar facilitator asked us what we think about people who write emails containing spelling and grammatical mistakes. A few people said this made them very angry. One or two even said that they would be less likely to act on the email. The facilitator then told us that on one occasion a participant had responded “I want to kill them”.
Next he showed us an example of a bad email, which was a request for information from a colleague. The author had failed to provide contact details, over-used capitals, not come up with a helpful Subject line, misspelt the word ‘from’, and referred to his correspondent Chris as ‘Christopher’ when she was in fact ‘Christine’. Other than that, it was bright, chatty and energetic. Then the facilitator posed the following: “Let me just ask you a question – have any of you formed an impression of what this person actually looks like? I bet you have. Anybody?” No, I thought. But behind me somebody shouted out “Sloppy”, and somebody else, “Untidy”. I think somebody else said something about dirty fingernails. At the behest of the seminar leader, a group of police, hospital, university and council workers created a highly unfavourable persona for the author of a simple and pleasant, if hasty, 4-line email. Then I heard “He probably has long hair.” And then “He’s probably gay”. I was finding it pretty surreal by that time. I thought about trying to get away with something like “He has HIV” or “He eats out of bins”, but bottled it.
The message I take from this is that to avoid being thought of as a social deviant by our readers, we must strive for formality and correctness on email at all times. You and I might consider email an optionally throwaway medium to use when we can’t or don’t want to get hold of somebody in person. We may think we can play around with the register a bit or take the lead on informality. We may think it’s possible to drop a letter and still do our job well. We may think that resorting to upper case for emphasis is understandable considering how many people read email in plain text format. We may give the benefit of the doubt on missing information and chalk it down to simple human error. But that, people, would be making assumptions (and please remember, assume makes an ass out of u and me) because for some people – perhaps people who have never experienced dyslexia or great haste, perhaps people who occupy positions of power at work where they can ignore you or refuse you on a whim – your emails are a licence to construct your entire character, appearance and sexuality.