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Terry Newell Headshot

Thanks for Your Message, Whatever It Said

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Thomas Jefferson wrote over 19,000 letters during his lifetime, including some to people he did not even know. In fact, the task of replying out of gentlemanly courtesy to complete strangers became so onerous that he once placed a notice in several East Coast newspapers asking people not to write to him. That was then.

This is now. People write the President and receive no reply for months -- or at all. People send letters to members of Congress and receive form replies that mention nothing of the original letter. People submit job applications and never get even a note that their application was received, much less considered. People send manuscripts to agents or publishers and hear nothing or get their material back in the self-addressed envelope they provided, with a form note (if that) saying some version of "we're not interested, but thanks for thinking of us." In fact, it comes back so quickly that it's pretty clear no one even bothered to read it before taking it out of one envelope and putting it into another. People sit in meetings and are put on "hold," often with that raised finger signaling "stop talking, I've got to take this" as the person they are meeting with answers their cell, treating whomever it might be as more important than the person they are already with. Even worse, people start texting on their BlackBerry or iPhone while they are presumably listening to the person across from them (unaware, it would seem, that the human brain cannot really do two things at once). The implication is that they are profoundly productive. "I multitask," would be their explanation, never considering that they have relegated the person they are with to a "task" to be squeezed into their oh-so-important-and-busy schedule.

Lest this sound like a Luddite rant, I will acknowledge that the modern and digital age is a marvelous thing, enabling great productivity. Jefferson, after all, could answer maybe 10 to 20 people in the mornings he set aside for correspondence. We can answer literally hundreds. But being "productive" begs the question of what we are producing.

Trust is a social good upon which society depends, as the body depends on blood to support its organs. When we treat people as things, responding (or not) without a real sense of responsibility to them, we destroy their trust in us, our organization, and over time the broader society. They feel abandoned and depersonalized. In the end, we destroy the social fabric on which we, too, depend. We thrive on personal relationships, yet we seem in the modern age to spend a lot of time cheapening them.

Even if that kind of a justification for more personal attention in the e-world does not seem convincing, it might help to remember that all those people we treat so dismissively are current or potential customers and citizens whose support we need to get done all that work that we find more pressing than them.

Naturally, efficiency would argue against a detailed, personalized reply to everyone who contacts us. In our wired world, we could get 19,000 emails, texts and tweets in just six months. We simply lack the people, time and resources to treat everyone as a Jefferson correspondent. Yet we can reply; silence is neither necessary nor acceptable. And we can reply with caring, comforting and helpful words, even if that reply is a rejection. Nothing prevents the human resources department, for example, from sending an email acknowledging your job application, giving the time frame for selection, and even offering tips on how to provide the kind of résumé most likely to get attention (culled from an analysis of those who have been hired in the past). Nothing prevents a politician's office from bringing on a few volunteers to actually read and craft replies to letters and emails that actually mention what the person wrote about and explaining what the person could do to build support for his idea (since the politician can quite naturally not push everyone's agenda). Nothing commands a person to take a call while meeting with you or work on her BlackBerry while talking to you. Shutting these devices off, visibly, at the start of a meeting signals "I care about you" to the person you are with.

We all want to accomplish a lot in this busy world. We want to leave a legacy of achievement. But our legacy is not only the "bottom line" of whatever business we are in. It is also the way we make people feel. Years from now, people will remember us less for how much work we crammed into our days than for how much caring we brought into their lives.

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