Nov 13

Email: It’s a love-hate relationship

I got my first email account in 1987 when my tech-savvy older brother found a way for us to stay connected, even though I was working in North Carolina and he was in Ohio.

Beyond the fact that we relied on CompuServe, I remember little of that initial experience – other than the fact it was complicated to find and respond to messages. I always looked forward to receiving his emails, likely due to the fact that they were family-focused, infrequent and fun.

When I snagged a faculty internship at The Grand Rapids Press in 1991, I was given a log-in to the now-defunct AText system, which allowed us to edit and share copy. AText had an internal email system that allowed us to message other reporters and editors in the newsroom. I always looked forward to the green “Message Pending” when it flashed in the upper right-hand corner of my screen – unless I was on deadline.

By the time I left for Romania and a Fulbright teaching position in the fall of 1994, email was much more widespread in business use. Problem was that I didn’t have consistent electricity or water, much less access to the Internet. My Romanian tutor oh-so-kindly let me slide behind his computer every couple of weeks and send email to family and friends back home. These provided a lifeline, and I devoured each and every message.

Thirty years after my first email experience, I find myself handcuffed to Outlook. While I still appreciate the immediacy of connection that email brings, I increasingly chafe under its demanding omnipresence. I see an escalation in the expectation that emails sent must be emails answered immediately – or else.

In an effort to try and regain the spirit of email past, or at least vent a little about my pet email peaves, I share the following seven pointers:

  • Touch it once: Back when I was working at my alma mater in the mid-1980s, an efficiency expert came through our news bureau and gave us tips on how to work, well, more efficiently. One thing that he said stuck and, even though it predated my intro to email, fits well here: Touch it once. Whether it’s a letter you need to respond to, a project you need to tackle or an email, when you pick up the task at hand, stay with it until complete.
  • Sometimes, just pick up the phone: Abraham Maslow, that great pinpointer of human needs, gave widely paraphrased advice in the 1960s: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Email is not appropriate for every occasion, particularly for disagreements. I have an unwritten rule that if I go back-forth with an email thread that starts to wander down a contentious path, I stop writing and pick up the phone. It works (almost) every time.
  • Avoid escalation with “reply all:” Speaking of escalation, be careful when you hit reply all – or, even worse, bring new people into an email discussion. Reply all can be used as a cudgel to beat your email recipient into submission – add enough people with enough rank to a thread and, well, you can often achieve victory. Just make sure it’s not a pyrrhic victory.
  • Avoid the mistake of “reply all:” Sometimes the use of “reply all” is reflexive rather than intentional – but the consequences can be just as painful. A dear friend shared a recent blunder from his CEO who replied to an all-company email with a flip response she intended only for the sender. Of course, it went to the entire office instead and has become a meme, further undermining the already-shaky confidence his team has in leadership. Double check yourself to make sure you really intend to reply all before so easily clicking that button.
  • Emails and juries: One of the best pieces of email advice I received came from a litigator at Warner Norcross more than a decade ago. In cautioning me to be judicious about what I shared via email, he said, “Imagine every email you ever write blown up to 120-point type and put in front of a jury.” I think about his counsel every morning as I sit down with a cup of coffee and the first volley of emails.
  • Emails and lawyers: When working on a sensitive matter that might result in litigation, it’s a good idea to bring your attorney into every email discussion. Doing so preserves attorney-client privilege, making it far less likely that emails will wind up as evidence (see above point). The key to this is EVERY email. No exception. I too often have clients who drop the attorney off an email, which effectively opens the entire chain to discovery.
  • Sometimes no email is the best email: Email is not always the best mechanism for conveying information, particularly sensitive information (see above points). It’s far too easy to forward to unintended recipients who can wreak havoc with their new knowledge. I recently cautioned a client against sending a mass email to its customers, highlighting the likelihood that it would be forwarded to the media. In the interest of time, the client opted to send the email – which created a new land-speed record for being sent to a reporter. Mop in hand, I refrained from “I told you so.”

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