The funerary nakedness of email

We talk much of the “death of email”, a declaration as premature as the paperless office – or even the cordless office. Or post-Taylorism for that matter.

What is more interesting however, with the proliferation of alternative messaging channels – all of which as direct messaging systems mimic the essential purpose of email – text, the multitude of IM systems and apps, Twitter, Facebook, etc – is the essential character of the messaging they most frequently carry.

At times when I have been most under pressure at work, sensing a nausea at what I may find each morning when I switched on my growing number of devices, email has been the last thing I have looked at. That’s because email has become the trusted medium for bad news. The other, newer platforms carry the positive news.

Yet as with many modern alternatives, email was once itself a tool of fascination and excitement. I remember a student at University in 1990 showing me how she was communicating with a friend at another university using a DOS computer. There was a frizzle about the opportunity it presented that drove the positive, upbeat and personal character of the content from them both. It was exciting, it was the birth of something with the most amazing potential.

[Twenty three years pass]

But now – got some bad news? Want to ruin someone’s day before it’s barely begun? Invade someone’s evening, or hard-worked for holiday? Want to create needless angst and emotion through being misunderstood or misinterpreted, even though you believe that by “writing it down” it will be less likely to be misunderstood or misinterpreted? Want to make sure everyone else knows too, even if they are barely involved? Say it with email.

Because if you’re going to learn the following, chances are it will be by email:

  • Your project has been cancelled
  • A customer has gone straight to your boss with a complaint
  • You are needed in New York first thing Monday morning (its now Saturday afternoon)
  • There is a compulsory conference call set for tonight at 1am (its now 9pm and you are three glasses of wine in)
  • Your strictly confidential note was circulated globally, including to those you mentioned

Because we have fallen out of love with it, and are no longer excited by it, so we use it for bad news.

E-mail isn’t dead. It’s the coffin.


2 thoughts on “The funerary nakedness of email

  1. Couldn’t agree more, Neil, well put. The problem in corporate life however seems to be that email is stubbornly refusing to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Why?

  2. Newer platforms might be the platform for cheery messaging and email the platform for bad news but let’s campaign for better use of it. When people wrote letters, they checked spelling and grammar, they used polite salutations such as ‘Dear so and so’ , ‘with sincere thanks’ or ‘kind regards’ . Who decided that it was OK to be ignorant and disrespectful via email is what I want to know. Who decided that even with spell check you could be completely illiterate and it didn’t matter? I received a response just this morning that simply said ‘Can’t make Friday’. This was from the Chief Exec at a FTSE 100. Facebook is worse. Mass use of Twitter etc. as business communication tools and there will be no point in teaching our children how to compose any sort of sentence or learn how to spell? Maybe people will even revert to using the telephone because they can’t write. I suppose that will at least provide the opportunity to engage in proper dialogue.

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