Due Diligence: When Email is a Bad Idea

Back in the early 90’s, when email was still a recent development in home-school communications, I decided to send a good news story home concerning Billy, a 9th grade boy who had been struggling at one point in my English class. My email contained the following conclusion:

“Since we last met to discuss Billy’s progress and his struggle to balance his football commitments with his academic obligations, I am writing to let you know that things have changed considerably. Since that conversation, Billy has been particularly diligent in all aspects of his work. I thought you should be aware of this so that you can provide Billy with some feedback on this development at home.”

The response that arrived four days later was brief and to the point:

“Thank you for letting us know. We have grounded Billy for the remainder of the term. I can assure you that he will never be diligent again.”

I initially thought this response was hysterically amusing until I paused to read the exchange again. Nothing in my communication had indicated that my reason for writing was positive (except for one word). Our prior dialogue had been only one of concern. Now, not only had the family misunderstood the meaning of the word “diligent”, but Billy was grounded after putting in a lot of really fine effort. What must he be thinking? And then it dawned on me that I had to break the somewhat embarrassing misunderstanding to them.

The things I learned from this episode were interesting. Because this was at a time when the use of email was in its infancy, the family had quite likely assumed that because I was using this newfangled way of communicating, it must be serious news. There were no clear cues that my message was positive. It makes me wonder now, three decades later, with email our most common form of communication, whether the opposite hasn’t happened today, whether we are not now, in fact, inured to the impact the medium of email has had on our communications?

Here are some examples of how email is used in many schools today that we just know is wrong, but it persists and we all-too-often tolerate it:

THE REPLY TO ALL CONTAGION. Is there anything more irritating and pointless than the tendency to reply to everyone for no other purpose other than to ensure that everyone knows what you have to say? There are valid uses of reply-to-all, but if we count the number of times it is used inappropriately, we will see a chunk of time from our lives that we will never get back. We have a stated policy in our faculty handbook that seriously cautions against this irritating practice.

THE CC AS A FORM OF THREAT. This is one that teachers and administrators are very familiar with. This is an email outlining a complaint or concern with a cc to a “superior” thrown in as a latent message of intent. I tend to simply delete these communications. They just feel like an invitation to leverage power and eavesdrop on a conversation I should not be privy to.

THE IMPATIENT EMAILER RESENTS. In the anecdote I related above, you may have noted that it took four days for the family to respond. That was a quick response back then, when compared to the more prevalent mail system of the day. But today people expect instant responses. The “resentment” I am referring to here is a reference to the re-sent email: “I emailed you yesterday concerning this issue and I am still awaiting a response.” That kind of message does little to promote alacrity.

THE GRENADE LOB COMMUNICATION. The temptation to communicate an angry message can be too strong to resist for some people who are prepared to say something in writing, from a distance, that they would never say to a person’s face. I tend to catch these and throw them back. We all know that anger should never be communicated via email, still it happens. A face-to-face conversation overcomes this problem.

THE MARATHON EMAILER. You know this type of email, the one that goes on and on and on. By the time you get to the end of it, you’ve forgotten what the point was. And then you are afraid to reply, because you know the sender would enjoy nothing more than writing another long, pointless response. Emails should be concise, clear and have a discernible end in sight, both to the dialogue and the message.

So what does it all mean? Are our lives now hostage to email communication? Is there no hope? I hear of people who fight a daily battle to control their inboxes. When I sent my ill-fated email in 1992, there were 5 million email accounts in the world, today that number is well over 4 billion. The truth is, I actually quite like email communication and prefer it infinitely to phone communication and the ancient, revered art of writing letters. If I can use email as a tool to protect teachers from an onslaught of unnecessary communication in some way, that is also a good thing. With other emerging tools that allow teachers to interact with students, I think email will decline in importance in the years ahead. But it never really was the revolution that people claim it was. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out: “The major advances in speed of communication and ability to interact took place more than a century ago. The shift from sailing ships to telegraph was far more radical than that from telephone to email.”

Avoid the pitfalls above. Be diligent about email. Don’t let it run your life. And try not to get grounded.

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