A student came to my office yesterday. “Hi Divya, I need to reply to an email about a job- do you think you could read it before I send it?” Of course, I said, and sat him down next to me. I frowned; where he was trying to be formal, I felt he came across as a bit aloof, where he tried to sound neutral, I read it as uninterested, where he tried to give a clear answer, to me he sounded slightly brusque. He burst out laughing “I like your teacher words – aloof, uninterested, brusque… you can just tell me it’s bad you know!” But that’s the thing, it wasn’t outright ‘bad’, it just didn’t hit the mark with me and maybe the recruiter he was writing to would have found it OK. I don’t really know.
Is there an internationally adaptable set of formulas for email? Who sets the standard for ‘good’ emails? How do we teach our students to handle communicating in a second / foreign language in a medium as sensitive, complex, hierarchical, demanding and powerful as email?
There is the trend of moving away from email, essentially because it can be a terrible time-suck that slows down work. A former student of mine tells me that his company uses Slack , describing how thrilled he was that he hardly ever needs to write emails to get work done. A while back I read the interesting story of Claire Burge on BBC Capital.
““Email is a very selfish tool,” explained Burge, who now runs a Dublin-based consultancy called Get Organised. “People dump tasks into each other’s inboxes without thinking about whether they are being considerate.” The result is that “you become a slave to your inbox checking your email first thing in the morning until you go to bed.””
The keyword for me there is ‘dump’. While a lot gets done on email, there’s no denying that – a lot gets ‘dumped’ on email as well, some of which would probably fail the litmus test of saying something to a person’s face. We’ve all had the occasional ‘I’ve just survived a meeting that could have been an email’ moment but equally, many people have also experienced the other problem of ‘I’ve just had to survive an email that could have been a healthy dialogue’. The thing is, when email is used in unfiltered streams of consciousness to undermine, rant, criticise and assert position, work is sadly stripped of its meaning. And surely meaning is one of the most important motivators to work in the first place?
Rewind 16 years. My first of many odd teaching jobs in Paris was teaching English to the head of a small insurance outfit. He was of a certain generation where email hadn’t been the defining way in which the “desk-jobbers”, as he put it, spent time at work. There weren’t ‘extra points’ to be won by writing to colleagues about work late at night or on a Sunday morning. My job was to teach him email English because his company was staring to work internationally. In six weeks, I prepared vocabulary lists for him, different sets of stock phrases that he could use and classified them according to formal / semi formal / informal language, analysed some of the communication he had already sent out and received in English and made some recommendations. “It is like creating a new personality for me” he joked one day, “well it’s certainly a new voice”, I replied. At the end of this period, I considered my job successfully ‘done’. We didn’t stay in touch because his training was over and my odd-jobs were multiplying. Today, when I look at the level of care my colleagues and I invest in advising our graduates on how to email, and the time we spend drafting and re-drafting external communication, needless to say I blush at my vocabulary lists and stock phrases.
So my questions are- how do we teach people to communicate well on email? How to we define the etiquette around it? How will this etiquette, and the medium itself, evolve? Who decides which email structures are communicative and which ones are uncommunicative? How do you teach ’email’?
Featured image by A.D. Eker (artist), THE THUISMUSEUM. – uploaded by Keith Bates, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13284839