Why are we still so awful at email?

Why are we still so awful at email? Opinion: email is getting more aggravating but can be less of a nuisance

Lucy Kellaway

“One of the greatest puzzles about email is that despite the fact that we have spent several hours a day for the past 15 years practising, we are failing to show any improvement. Even on the basics, we are as clueless as ever.” Photograph: Ian Nicholson/PA Wire

“One of the greatest puzzles about email is that despite the fact that we have spent several hours a day for the past 15 years practising, we are failing to show any improvement. Even on the basics, we are as clueless as ever.” Photograph: Ian Nicholson/PA Wire

 

Last week I got an email that went like this. “Dear colleagues, Please join me for the next Global Conversation webcast on December 10th. All the details are in my blog post. Best - ”

It was short and snappy, which was good. It was clear and fairly free of jargon, which was also good. Yet it still managed to needle me in three different ways.

For a start, I prefer an email to contain the facts rather than an invitation to find them elsewhere. Although I enjoy good conversation as much as the next person, the thought of a “Global Conversation webcast” was lowering. And “Best” is among the worst email sign offs, beaten only by “very best” and “bestest” – in that order.

Given my flair for finding jarring things in the briefest, most anodyne message, I got excited last week when I saw someone tweeting a Fast Company article about the most annoying email habits.

Some of these were news to me. The biggest crime, the magazine said, was not putting a telephone number on your email. I never reveal my mobile number to strangers for the excellent reason that I do not want them to ring me on it. One of the least annoying things about email is that it is a lot less bothersome than a phone call.

No thanks

The article also objected to emails that simply say “Thanks”, on the grounds that such messages waste the recipient’s time. This is nonsense. As the average adult reads 250 words a minute, surely even the most crazy-busy executive has 0.004 minutes to spare on this single, polite word.

But the bulk of the annoying things singled out by the magazine – making emails too long, overusing “reply all”, putting cheesy aphorisms at the bottom - are things I agree with. They are also things that only the deranged could disagree with, which raises the interesting question: if these things are so universally known to be aggravating, why do people go on doing them?

One of the greatest puzzles about email is that despite the fact that we have spent several hours a day for the past 15 years practising, we are failing to show any improvement. Even on the basics, we are as clueless as ever.

What is the right way to start an email? Far from a consensus emerging, the salutation chaos goes on getting worse.

The tension between the formal and colloquial is far from resolved.

In my inbox there are some examples of “Dear Sir/Madam” as well as plenty of messages beginning “Hey.” Last week my garage bravely attempted to solve the problem with a message that began: “Hi Miss Kellaway. ”

I detect two new trends emerging in greetings, both bad. One is to start messages with “Good morning” or “Good evening”. This grates both for its fake heartiness and because it assumes that the recipient is in the same time zone and so hooked on email they open all messages immediately. The other is to start baldly with “All”, which is badly missing the “Dear” that should come before it.

Sign-offs are getting worse too. There are as many Cheers, Kindest Regards and Very Bests as ever, but there is a new tendency to pile on the pleasantries one on top of another. I received an email last week that ended, “I look forward to hearing back from you. Many thanks and speak soon. With very best wishes.”

More annoying This reminds me of the man who runs our local corner shop, who always says, “All the best, see you later, cheers, bye-bye”, as customers leave. English is a new language for him, and I dare say he will get the hang of it in time. But will emailers? It’s not looking promising.

Even more annoying than any of the above is the recent development of the “read receipt”, which demands your permission to let the sender know you have opened their dratted message.

Not Now, I always click irritably, deeply regretting that there is no button that says “Mind your own flaming business”.

Given that email is getting more aggravating all the time, what is encouraging is that it gets to me less than it used to. This might be to do with the mellowing that comes with age.

But there is also an element of, if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em. Exclamation marks, which I used to despise, are now sprinkled throughout my messages in an abandon of Great news! Delighted! And Lovely! It can’t be long before smiley faces, which used to bring on a feeling of shrinking revulsion, start appearing too.

However, the main reason emails annoy us less is that while we have got no better at writing them, we are far better at reading them. Which is to say we have got far better at not reading them. Irritating messages hardly grate at all any more because those that make it through our admirable filters can be swiftly sent on their way by pressing delete. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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