For me, e-mailing is an almost painful form of communication. Opening my University e-mail homepage is a bit frightening, as 30 new e-mails marked “Important” glare at me behind urgent subject lines. Even if many of these e-mails are from Groupon informing me of the latest massage deal, it still takes a substantial chunk out of my day to go through and appropriately respond. This is without a real career, where the amount of e-mails must increase exponentially.
But e-mail is a fact of life at this point. It was quite the shock this summer — I spent nine to five in an office environment — to see just how many e-mails were exchanged each day. From internal e-mails with links to Buzzfeed articles about Ryan Lochte’s narcissism to a 20-e-mail exchange just to set up a meeting with a client, my inbox filled quickly. It seemed as though e-mail trumped almost every other form of communication, including face-to-face conversation.
E-mailing about anything and everything — and taking a substantial amount of time to do so — was not unique to my workplace. Growing up, my mom, a teacher, would always dedicate her Sundays to checking and responding to e-mails she received over the weekend. I never understood why she did that until now.
It seems as though people consistently complain about e-mail, yet use it obsessively. In a way it makes sense, because it’s the only form of communication that people from all generations can use with relative ease. And written communication will continue to trump face-to-face conversations and phone calls in business settings.
But that doesn’t mean the art of writing an e-mail is innate. Like anything you draft, it takes practice to develop your voice in an e-mail while simultaneously getting your point across effectively and concisely. And it takes some people more time than others to master this skill.
Just like any other form of communication, we subconsciously judge the tone and style of e-mails. Adding too many exclamation points runs the risk of looking juvenile and unprofessional. But, if you’re too short and direct, you risk reading demanding and rude.
For any job, even that first job in high school, e-mailing is an overlooked, yet important skill. According to new data released from the McKinsey Global Institute, the average employee spends 28 percent of their workweek reading and responding to e-mails. That may not seem like a lot, but it adds up to about 13 hours a week, or 650 hours a year.
A series of studies from 2005 found that the sender of an e-mail is overly egocentric in how they believe their e-mail is received. One study in particular found that sarcasm in e-mails was only communicated effectively about half the time. Clearly, miscommunication is common between coworkers, managers and their clients.
It’s ignorant to assume that e-mail is a trivial form of communication. But, most universities don’t exactly prepare you for proper e-mail etiquette, Michigan included. The Sweetland Writing Center offers one-credit courses in the rhetoric of blogging, approaches to the podcast and new media writing for non-profits; all very important, yet less-widely used forms of communication. Sweetland should look into offering a similar course for the art of e-mail writing. It’s a text that provides a great opportunity to analyze the impact of a particular word choice, or the how a certain tone sounds to other people.
Long-form writing, while important, should not be taught exclusively with more specific communication omitted. My generation is used to obtaining information and communicating briefly, from a 140-character Tweet to a hurried text message. Being persuasive in as few words as possible — a skill extremely important to many careers — is not emphasized enough. Whether it’s a one-credit course on how to write an e-mail or an English class solely based on short-form and new media writing, this should be a priority at the University.
Ideally, people would take advantage of other forms correspondence. From Facebook groups to Tweeting, these alternatives to e-mailing will hopefully prevail. They’re less stressful to read, and they’re certainly less intimidating than a stuffed inbox. But until that point, e-mail remains strong. And if there’s one thing I learned this summer, a misplaced exclamation point can be uncharacteristically killer.
Adrienne Roberts is the editorial page editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @AdrRoberts.