On the Email Mountain

August is a quiet month on the email front. Few committee meetings are occurring to clog up the inbox with their multiple attachments of papers. Plus many people are away from their own computers during the school holidays and they probably don’t want to be caught sneaking peeks at their smart phones or tossing off a quick response when they’re meant to be relaxing. So, for those of us not on our holidays during the month, incoming traffic slows down.

You might have thought that that would mean it was easier to keep on top of the few messages that do arrive but I’ve realised I’m actually doing worse on this front. Emails that deserve an answer are languishing without a response and my turn-around is slower than usual, not quicker. (Apologies if yours is one of the ones sitting there unanswered). Why? I think I’ve rationalised this: I actually have time to do some uninterrupted thinking, read some papers and scribble wild thoughts on paper the way I used to do when other responsibilities didn’t intervene. My office is even more untidy than usual. It’s strewn with print-outs – I’m old-fashioned enough still to prefer to read hard copy at times like this, so I can easily flick between different papers as I pull my thoughts together – and recycled paper on which I’ve jotted down ill-thought through ideas as I attempt to join some conceptual dots. I worry my quiet season will finish far too soon for anything concrete to emerge in a useful way, but it does make a pleasant change from the usual rushing from the pillar that is one committee meeting to the post that is another. However, the brief gaps between these pillars and posts are clearly exactly when I toss off quick replies to the email mountain.

However, there’s something slightly strange about those emails I have been sending. Several of them have been quite cross and I’ve had to think hard about my words. I don’t want to write to a professorial colleague, you’re being hopelessly naïve. I don’t think that that word would have the desired effect at all and, after a lot of mental tossing around of alternatives I came up with ‘optimistic’ as the least offensive way of expressing the naivety I saw. I might as well not have bothered: the chap’s on holiday for weeks.

It is never nice to tick people off. As a supervisor one of the hardest things is to say to a student pull your socks up or, even worse, you’re not cut out for research and you should be looking outside academia for your next move. It’s a conversation I hate to have but sometimes it’s necessary. It is certainly not a dialogue that can be had by email. It has to be face to face. But sometimes a less serious but critical exchange can and has to be had by email and I’ve had a couple of those too in the past week.

If I’m going to be cross in a controlled way by email I try to remember never to send it as soon as I’ve written it. That control of language tends to work better if you read the message through several times to check how it comes across. Saying you are horrified/fed up/angry with someone’s behaviour is probably best watered down a bit to something less hostile. I chose ‘dismayed’ as a suitably measured alternative this week. I felt it expressed annoyance without going over the top. Whether it was received that way – who knows (although an apologetic email was the instant response)?

Emails do seem particularly prone to being open to misinterpretation. I guess it is such an instant medium that too often we shoot off a response without reading it through. However, probably one of the ostensibly rudest ones I ever received was clearly unintentional. I can’t reproduce it here because, probably fortunately, I have forgotten the exact turn of words. Whatever it was, it came from a German colleague who was completely unaware of the idiomatic nuances. However apparently proficient in spoken English he was, the phrase he wrote in a language not his own conveyed an anger and tone of complaint that was not matched by the surrounding text. They were words that would have been utterly offensive if written by a native-speaker. I did point this out to him so that he might not fall into the same trap again. No doubt, however often he might have read through what he wrote he wouldn’t have picked up the offence implied, but I hope it sank in for future reference.   This isn’t the case for many of us much of the time. It really does behove us to check our tone and look out for unintended insults! I have before now acted as a sanity-checker of emails from other non-native speakers who know only too well that what looks innocent to them can cause affront to another. Sometimes we might all benefit from such cross-checking.

So, I need to work at the language of my replies; and I need to work at actually replying at all, raising my head from the rare treat of having hours when I can get stuck into some real brain work.


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2 Responses to On the Email Mountain

  1. Just to say I found this piece by Tim Harford on email management v. helpful in keeping on top of things:

  2. August? Quiet? Eurrrgh. Here it’s awful, but mainly because of the timelines of a couple of major grants we have underway (cue the moaning and tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth).

    My PhD supervisor, who was wise in many ways, always used to use your method of not sending responses written in anger right away – either via email or using honest-to-goodness paper mail.

    As for misinterpretation – I have occasionally been accused of being overly formal in emails, which I just don’t “see” when I write (or read) my own. I once wrote to a sales rep that I see frequently and am very friendly with, asking him for a reference for someone who had applied for a position in our group. When I saw him next, he told me he started reading that email and immediately thought, “oh no, what have I done wrong?”. I guess the formal tone scared him a bit(!).

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