“Please drop the ‘Mr. Plouffe,’ I just can’t get used to it,” a professional contact writes in an e-mail, “unless of course you insist on me calling you ‘Mrs. Moreau.’”
“That’s Miss Moreau to you,” I write back, regretting the chumminess as soon as I’ve pressed Send.
Only the second contact I’ve had with this man, a government spokesperson, and he wants me to call him by first name?
What is it about e-mail correspondence that allows us to lose all sense of decorum? Why is it so easy to establish an intimacy that would not be expected through face-to-face or telephone contact? And why is it that 10 years ago we would not have dreamed of sending out business correspondence full of typos and easy familiarities but it’s acceptable to do so now?
E-mail creates both a false sense of intimacy and separateness. When we meet in person there are all kinds of nuances we have to pay attention to: not only the spoken word, but voice, tone, body language, setting, eye contact, even smell. All the things that allow us to interpret message, analyze and respond. Telephone exchanges afford a lesser degree of contact and interpretation but still voice, with its timbre, cadence, tone, and strength conveys more than just a string of words. Think of all the ways you can ask someone, “Is it true the ship was off course because the two crew members were manning each other and not the bridge?” Which words the speaker emphasizes means the question can be asked playfully, skeptically, incredulously or angrily.
But nuance is lost in e-mail and perhaps that is one reason why people, strangers, feel comfortable being overtly chummy in cyberspace. Maybe the medium demands an exaggerated human presence because the usual physical cues aren’t there. Human beings for the most part appreciate pattern and ritual — it’s what has sustained us over millenniums. Knowing how to respond in social situations, how to read body language and interpret delicacies of speech helps us belong, helps us remain part of the tribe, what in this century we call community.
cyberspace eliminates many of the elements we respond to instinctively so we
exaggerate — we metaphorically press CTRL-B to emphasize the outlines of
what should be cursory connections. Perhaps the casual typos and lack of
structure — who uses Dear or Sincerely anymore? — are some sort of
reverse psychology, an über casual that creates a false sense of familiarity,
or I know you, you know me, we exist.
In elementary school most of us learned to write letters: the return address, date, correspondent’s address, salutation, body, closing. Yours truly always bored me — Sincerely seemed to encompass a greater realm and could morph from its 19th-century romantic origins to 20 th -century business without looking out of place. As a teenager I wrote long, terribly desperate letters to friends who always seemed to be moving away, and later when I moved away, wrote shorter, chirpy letters assuring family I was just fine. But Sunday afternoon phone calls and weekly letters ended and e-mail notes took over, starting out looking like regular letters, but then decreasing to three or four intermittent lines of the how-are-you-I-am-fine variety.
I’ve noticed a shift in the business world in the past year. Where once you could more easily reach someone through e-mail, now the telephone is back as the choice for chasing someone down. Need a quote like half an hour ago? Pick up the phone. Most people seem to answer e-mail at appointed times: first thing in the morning and back from lunch. But if you need an answer at 10 a.m. you’ll likely get it if you have a phone — cellular, landline or Blackberry — to call.
But there’s an even more intriguing method of communication. In 2001 after the I-love-you computer virus shut down most North American corporate e-mail a Royal Bank minion was reported to have said not having e-mail that day forced everyone from cubicles to face-to-face encounters. “It was kind of refreshing,” he said.
Contact. Real time. Who knew?