Here’s a column that began with something very strange coming across my desk. It was a letter, postmarked in Princeton, personally addressed to me (and not just with my name peering out of a window), inviting me to speak at the Princeton Corridor Rotary Club.
I don’t get many letters anymore, and very few that come in an envelope with my name on it. Instead I get E-mails — probably 40 or 50 a day. Sometimes I open them, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I open them and read them, sometimes I open them and only half read them. Sometimes I respond to them, sometimes I don’t.
I read the letter, from the speaker chair of the Rotary, Peter Dawson. Come and speak, Dawson wrote, but use the opportunity to share with the Rotarians a principle or strategy you have used in your business. Do not, wrote Dawson, use it as a sales presentation.
Given that the Rotary consists of men and women who somehow have figured out how to get out of their offices for a leisurely lunch once a week every week of the year, and given that I am a prisoner of my own office five days a week (or more) most every week of the year, I didn’t figure there was much strategy I could share with the Rotarians. But I did think I could ask a question about this Age of Instant Communication in which we all live, specifically whether or not there’s actually more or less communication that otherwise.
At the Rotary I raised an eyebrow about remote computing: Sure, the technology as it exists today could enable us to put out a newspaper without any of our staff every leaving their homes, but would the final product be as good or as efficiently produced as it is today, doing it the old fashioned way?
And I questioned the bottom line value of cell phones, those great gadgets that we could never do without but which now take precedence over regular incoming telephone calls — even if the caller is only someone’s kid home from school wondering what he or she can have for a snack.
But E-mail may be the example that takes the cake. It’s a great thing, so great that I have about 4,000 messages sitting around in my various E-mail folders. But are those E-mail messages read as thoroughly as that letter I received?
And when they are read, are they understood as you intended them to be? I wonder. In recent months we have been filling several positions here, a process that now involves far more E-mails than personal interviews. In two cases promising candidates dropped off the face of the earth — both times after jumping to conclusions based on inferences drawn from E-mails. In the old days the E-mail discussions would have taken place in person, and a pained look on an applicant’s face would have told me that a particular item needed some further discussion.
I was first tempted to blame myself — a Neanderthal trying to navigate in the E-mail medium. Then I read the September 3 story in the New York Times about the online dating participants who now face a daunting new dilemma: Had they — or had they not — been dumped by their romantic interests? The etiquette of how to say “get lost” online was still a little complicated, reported the Times.
That September 3 issue of the New York Times contained another article on the subject of online communication. Its title: “E-mail in haste, panic at leisure.” After you realize you have sent a disparaging E-mail about a colleague to that very colleague (who happened to be among a group of recipients, for example), what should you do. Offer a sincere apology, says the Times, but deliver it in person, or by telephone.
“Conversing in real time,” reported the Times, “shows that you are willing to make things right.” I wonder: Does that mean that conversing by E-mail shows the opposite?
To the advice offered by the Times, I would offer one more piece: Do not ever consider anything communicated via E-mail to be personal and confidential. A few weeks ago the members of West Windsor Township Council were embroiled in a massive controversy over the process by which new members could be appointed. Acrimonious, accusatory E-mails flew back and forth. At one point a collection of each and every one arrived in my E-mail inbox. It should have been a reporter’s dream come true — instead, for me, it was just another 30 or 40-page missive that got opened, but never totally read.
At the Rotary lunch a longtime real estate agent noted that when he started in the business in the late 1960s, when communication consisted of letters, phone calls, and the occasional courier, it used to take around six weeks to complete a closing. Today, with E-mail, cell phones, websites with broadband access, it takes . . . around six weeks to complete a closing.
Some of you will get this column in a our E-mail newsletter. Others will see it in the print edition. I will count on the print edition for the majority of the readership.