Predicting the future has never been easy. I've always been very fond of the writer who, back in 1949, wrote with immense certainty in the publication Popular Mechanics that "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." Actually Popular Mechanics did well over the years. In 1905 they forecast that one day a doctor would be able to examine a patient in another city via an 'electric handshake' which would certainly be one way to shock you back to health. Anyway, I make a prediction for the future which I am confident of -- my email inbox is never going to be empty. It's like some magic compartment which expands daily with no thought of ever reaching a limit. About 200 billion emails are sent each day in the world and I swear most of them come to me.
The first email ever sent was back in 1971 when U.S. programmer Ray Tomlinson sent a string of nonsense letters from one computer to another. Some of that early history is echoed each day as there are still an astonishing number of emails with insignificant content sent through the ether. It has lead me to wonder if we don't need a little nudge around the area of email manners. A digital do's and don'ts to help clear some of the mess out of messaging.
It's not a long list but at the top everyone could help me sort the importance of my mail by filling in the 'subject' field at the top. It acts like a small herald with a trumpet letting me know whether the matter is urgent, will keep or can be deleted without even reading. Sometimes just writing the subject down makes you realize that actually, it's not worth writing about because please, (and this seems so basic) don't email unless you have something to say. I think the clue is whether it's worth committing your words to paper. I probably don't need to know that "Booby trap" spelled backward is "party boob" but I do need to know what time you are coming for dinner.
On the subject of 'party boob' do mind jokes in emails. Sarcasm never reads well in electronic form and one person's thrill at sending a 'hilarious' link to a video of a cat who sounds like a dog is another person's idea of a waste of time. There are some senders who send that stuff all day and I think it's just fine to write back and say, gently that it's not for you. Being clear, however, can be hard. I absolutely get that reading nuance and emotion in an email is not easy but just wish some folks would recall that 'emoticons' can be equally annoying. If you write to tell me that you passed your exams I probably don't need a smiley face to get that you are pleased.
I suppose my biggest bugbear is that so many emails are dull and badly written -- and I don't just mean the ones from people in far off lands with money transfer issues or exotic women with sex advice. What is wrong with being polite? Why not use whole sentences with punctuation? Employ both upper and lower case letters while not overusing CAPITAL LETTERS SO THAT YOU APPEAR TO BE SHOUTING!
The fact that this form of mail is sent and arrives quickly doesn't mean you can't take your time to write them well. The English language has more than a million words in it. Too many words to ever be able to count them all so we are spoilt for choice. It is surely the only language in the world where you can talk about the man who fell into the upholstery machine but is now fully recovered. The English dictionary contains words like 'pandiculating' which means yawning and stretching at the same time. We have access to expressions such as 'Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia' which is the scientific term for brain freeze. I think it's practically criminal if we don't sprinkle such joy through the internet and make our missives memorable.
While I'm on the subject let's just dip quickly into the shorter world of texting. Personally I live by the well-known rule about texting -- WAIT -- which stands for Why Am I Texting? Again, make sure you have something to say and then say it properly. What makes you so bsy tht u hv 2 forget whole words? Unless you know them really well don't presume the person you are texting will know who you are. Sign the text with your name. Don't decide you are so important that the recipient will have kept you in their contacts list. If you do know someone well then please, don't think that makes it okay to text them a life changing message. This is really not the medium to tell someone you are breaking up with them or for announcing anyone's death.
I love modern communication and how it has opened up the world of information but mostly what I think is that sometimes we should just stop. Sometimes what is needed is not an email but a phone call or even a visit. There is no substitute for the personal touch. How nice occasionally to get that old fashioned thing, a handwritten letter. And here is a radical thought -- the next time you think of texting someone what a good time you are having, instead put your phone down and try having a good time with the people you are actually with.
Well, that's got that off my chest which is good but now I'm worried. Some people won't agree. Oh dear, I bet there'll be emails.
Sandi Toksvig is the author of The Tricky Art of Co-Existing (June, The Experiment).
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