Since I was published over 20 years ago, people have been begging me to help design a radically new email system. This isn’t an inside joke or a clerical error. To be sure, now we’re inundated with numerous variations on email, the original has lost none of its charm. But far too many emails are more focused on the technical aspects of email than the human aspects.
People often ask me whether they could have an easier time. A quick pointer: no email system can be easy.
In the pre-email age, email was a casual way to send files to people in your network. “Mea culpa” became a personal euphemism to express mutual agreement about some misdeed. “You’re my uncle from Kentucky” was particularly popular. Today, we’re far more interested in friendship. In some ways, email has eroded the importance of meaningful interactions – and increased the importance of impersonal communication. And though a nice gesture of good faith is appreciated, someone on the receiving end isn’t likely to view emails this way.
Over the decades, many great writers have told us a big part of the magic of written communication has been the ability to communicate. So let’s lose some the highfalutin nonsense that the acronym AIM stands for, and think back to that part of our history when we used non-verbals to show we cared – using “I” when we meant “you”, and “Thank you” when we meant “no thanks”. Those things are both valid ways to express ourselves. But I much prefer to see people using “you” to express their thanks and regrets, and to “you” when talking to someone who is, in fact, also “you”. The end of AIM would be just another day in the life of email.
Make a note of your specific concern so that you never waste time dealing with same email again
Email can also enable you to create other forms of communication that can be even more meaningful. Just because you never use email doesn’t mean that you can’t send an email on behalf of your teacher. You don’t even have to know the teacher, and if they’re inundated with work, maybe there isn’t much time to send an email that might help them. The teacher could just be copied in on the email. Then, over time, if it becomes a custom, people can sign their name in their own handwriting. The teacher might post a contact link in the main email. Just knowing that you helped another human being might be as meaningful as not having to worry about a particular email for the day.
From time to time, people will ask for advice about an awkward, boring or unnecessary aspect of email. If you’re like me, you’ll reply quickly with a message like, “If you’re having trouble getting an email to the recipient, try the following tips.” If you really want to solve the problem, try one of the others:
“…my wife is having a hard time with email and there’s nothing I can do about it. May I suggest a friend?”
“Would you have any further questions?”
“Would you like to hear about my dream business venture?”
Email also offers significant opportunities for seeing other people in a very different light. Consider the possibility that someone you see all the time, who comes through regularly, is actually your best friend. Finally, email offers opportunities to understand how someone else’s email process might be possible for you. An engineer might send an email asking if a technology like email could be improved, and is given the opportunity to offer his ideas and to learn new techniques from others. The engineer might even use her version to improve the service she now delivers.
Email is a tricky device, but it’s also a fabulous tool. Try to keep the magic alive.
• David Brewster is the author of this essay.
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