Check out an old post from 2010, called the Internet Newbie Manual, along with a delightful little piece on awkward email situations. I’d like to add a couple of my own pet peeves to these email situations.
The thing with email is that it is ubiquitous, but we have not entirely figured out what to do with it. Can we be funny on email? Can EVERYONE be funny on email? I don’t think so. Deadpan humor, for instance, works well in person, generally, unless you’re a jerk (in which case you have no clue you are a jerk, so you’re on your own, like this guy).
In text-only email, however, humor can be extremely messy, hurtful, and offensive. I have had my share of situations where I’ve cracked hilarious email jokes in order to celebrate a new and growing friendship with people whom I considered smart, ironic, and funny, and after the total silence on email, gradually discovered that these people were no longer so very friendly anymore. You know how it is – as one grows older, one becomes more and more silent because one just doesn’t know how other people will receive humor anymore. I blame this, of course, on other people’s lack of social skills. [IRONY ALERT ].
Women fix the problems with text-only email by generously using emoticons. Men are too cool for emoticons, so they end up looking like jerks. Which they are not.
Then there’s the power dynamic problem. This is a particular issue in work emails. I had a student once. She was prickly and easily offended. I worked hard at understanding her and being open with her. We developed a good relationship. One day, suddenly, she was offended over I don’t recall what – I think it was a 9.5/10 grade. She wrote me an email, and this is how she addressed me:
Okay, seriously, is that the way you address your professors? Is that how you address ANYONE, unless you’re Severus Snape? So I decided to be funny, and responded, starting with:
This, also, of course, deeply offended her. I learned that the key to communication was to either have it face to face or not at all. Frequently I get a Meltdown Email, such as:
Professor Mir, I have a bad grade and a lot of absences and I wish you didn’t grade me down so much I mean I know I didn’t do so great but I did my best and I attended whenever I could I mean I know you have a policy but why do you have such a strict policy? [and so on for another page or so]
When I was younger, I used to respond right away with a set of informative facts, questions, and answers (e.g. did you check the syllabus? we discussed this on day 1 of the class; what are the reasons for absences? I did give you feedback on your previous assignment and it wasn’t addressed when you revised it). This was a big mistake, because the next email was the Mother of all Meltdowns. Now, I know better. I respond with:
Great to hear from you. I’d like to chat in person. Let’s talk after class, ok?
Usually, the response is:
I’m really busy with classes [I only have 30 minutes in between to dash off frantic emails]. I’m ok now. I’ll just try to do better on the next assignment. Thanks for your help.
Some people start every email with “Dear.” This is endearing and old-fashioned, and you cannot go wrong with this. But it seems to be very common practice to address people like this:
Can you drop the rent check off on time this month? Thanks,
Personally, I prefer emails that go like this:
Hope you’re doing well. Can you drop the rent check off on the 1st please? Thanks,
I can’t explain why I like this so much. Funny, isn’t it, how the addition of “hi” and “please” and the subtraction of snippy hints lubricates the angles of everyday tension? This is how the niceties of everyday social behavior work. This is why we use small talk. This is why we use emoticons and gentler language on email than we have to use in person. This is also why we don’t swamp our friends and acquaintances with forwards and sunset images just as we don’t express every single thought that flits into our heads when we are speaking to someone in person. There are parallels. You can apply everyday etiquette to email etiquette. They are still relevant, despite the ubiquity of email. Just because you send four thousand emails and texts a day doesn’t make it any less interpersonal communication.