SEND, the new bible of email etiquette, was long-awaited by those of us who often feel as if we're drowning in a sea of bad jokes and cheesy chain letters. Written by Will Schwalbe (editor in chief of Hyperion Books) and David Shipley (deputy editorial page editor and Op-Ed page editor of The New York Times, the book is supported by a great site and blog, Think Before You Send
Co-author Will Schwalbe answered our many questions (over email, of course), weighing in on everything from forwarding techniques to when it's time to just pick up the phone and yell at someone.
We have three autographed and dedicated copies of SEND to give away. Here's how it will work: You send us your stories of the worst email gaffes you've received, we'll pick our favorites and publish the stories (don't worry, the identities of the senders will be protected). The winners will receive the book to award the person who sent the email. To enter, follow the contact link at the bottom of the page, select "Send Giveaway" from the pull-down menu and tell us the most egregiously bad email story you've got before Thursday, 6 September 2007 at 11:59pm EST.
Due to the ease of sending email people to tend communicate a lot of unnecessary things. I think that's really the core of the book and the problem you're trying to help solve. Do you think this will get progressively worse as more and more emails are being sent, or will it help people learn?
You've hit the nail on the head. We love email. But everyone is using it too much. We think this situation will get better over time. Whenever you get a new toy—and in the history of human communication email is still a very new toy—you tend to play with it too much and use it for things it's not really meant for. The idea of the book is to spark a conversation. These are our rules about when to use email and when not to use it. But you can come up with your own—and those will be situational, varying from company to company or even person to person. The important thing is that you think about it and establish criteria. For example, we strongly believe that email isn't good for strong negative emotion. Whenever you are starting to get hot under the collar, it's time to get off email and pick up the phone or schedule a visit—or maybe even drop the matter entirely. People are using email too much (most people we know get and send upwards of 100 a day which is more than 30,000 a year) and not very well. So it simply has to get better; we don't think it can get much worse. There are only so many hours a day and many of us are spending a quarter of them on email.
The good news is that there's a lot in the world you can't do anything about. But this isn't one of those things. We can do this better and it's amazing the effect it has on your life when you do. One simple thing—for example, writing "No Reply Necessary" when you are just forwarding info or informing someone of something—can cut your email incoming down by 10-25%!
What are the exceptions to the SEND rule? When is it okay to send an email that isn't Simple, Effective, Necessary, or Done?
There are no exceptions to the SEND rule. None. But Simple doesn't mean arbitrarily simple. This isn't a simple reply, but I'm trying to make it as simple as I can. Effective. Ditto. It's a matter of effort. Necessary. Again, there's no objective standard. Sometimes the little "pings" we send our friends with a seemingly inessential message are the most necessary of all, because they say, "Hey, I'm thinking about you," and what could be more necessary than that? Anything that reinforces social bonds we care about is necessary. And finally Done. Well, that only applies if it's something you care that gets done. So, to use a tautology, it's only necessary when it's necessary. "Wanted you to know they are replaying that awesome Real World episode tonight—no reply necessary" is a message that doesn't need a Done mechanism. "I'm panicked that I left the stove on. Can you check and call me right back and let me know" does need a Done and has it built-in.
Do you think email and all of the digital communication is detrimental to the development of interpersonal relationships and the social skills of the generations growing up in an email world? Do you think people in the future are going to speak more like the emails we write? Or speak at all?
I think emails haven’t had a bad effect on social skills. People think email killed the letter. But the phone kind of killed the letter. What email killed is a certain kind of phone call. So it’s actually made us better typists for sure, and helped turn the phone call and visit back into social occasions, not occasions to demand things from one another. (We do our demanding now on email). And nothing will ever replace human to human contact, or at least we don’t think anything will in our lifetime, even Second Life!
It’s easy to send an email instead of calling. When should you pick up the phone instead of sending an email?
You should pick up the phone whenever you are getting angry, upset, when the situation is getting too complicated, when the exchange has been going on too long (long lines of “re:s” piling up in the subject line), when you want to talk to someone about the way that person is emailing (email etiquette errors are best gently corrected on the phone or in person), and when you just want the pleasure of hearing someone’s voice!
Why are people still forwarding me those things about making money or the stupidest flash animations? What’s the best way to educate these people as they usually tend to be less tech-savvy and newer to email?
The best way to educate people about what NOT to send you is to do it in person when you next see them. Just a quick, “Hey, I love hearing from you but I get so much email and have such limited storage that I’m asking all my pals not to send me forwards or large files I haven’t requested or emails with flash animations and all that kind of stuff. If you have cool things on the computer you want to show me, can you save them and invite me over for a drink and then we can look at them together?” But if you can’t do that, you can get the sentiment across in an email. Just be gentle. Oh, and if these are coming from an elderly relative who might be offended? Our advice: Just keep getting them and keep your mouth shut. Life’s too short to make a big deal of such things.
How do we find the right medium between a short, quick un-explanatory email and those drawn-out, I-don’t-even-want-to-read-this-anymore novels in our mailboxes?
Basically, we believe that there’s always time to be cheerful. (Even a quick “Greetings!” makes a peremptory email into a pleasant one). But also that keeping the “Sent from Handheld” and adding “Please excuse terseness and typos” or the like helps if you write really short ones from your iPhone or Blackberry. As for really long ones—if you must, you just need to remember to break them into lots of paragraphs, put a summary or your most important point right up top, and leave lots of white space. And you also need to remember how many people read email on handhelds. So if you have a long one you must send, send it from 9-5pm when there’s greatest likelihood someone will be looking at it on a desktop. In general, though, less is more.
You discuss how email demands that we figure out who we are in relationship to the person we’re writing due to the challenge of conveying tone. How do you go about this? What’s the best, most efficient way to convey tone?
Tone is everything and is conveyed by everything: Evan or Mr. Orensten. Hi or Hey or Dear. Proper spelling and punctuation or lax and sloppy. Sincerely or xoxo. Will Schwalbe or Will at the bottom. Contractions or none.
We have a ton in the book about tone. Our best advice: start one level of formality above where you think you should be and immediately mirror in all respects the response you get back. Also, we love exclamation marks and emoticons (in relatively informal exchanges) as instant ways to add cheerful tone.
Some email applications contain stationary like features. Do you think we are heading in a more design heavy, customizable email platform or are we going to stick to this super simple quick word platform? What does the future hold for email?
Every attempt at stationary we’ve seen—wallpaper, odd fonts—makes email more difficult to read and more annoying. We think Times New Roman or Arial, plain black, no background, will be the way to go for some time. And whatever the future holds, we will always have need of some form of written communication; so we think the rules we lay out in our book, and the things we want people to consider, will apply for a long time to come!