Monday, July 26, 2010

The Tyranny of E-mail

book cover, The Tyranny of E-mail

Having just listened to the author of The Tyranny of E-mail in an hour-long interview, it seems to me the book should be titled The Tyranny of E-mail Used Really Poorly in a Corporate Environment.

In the Forum show I listened to, author John Freeman focused on how people's lives get taken over by e-mail. They check it as soon as they wake up, right before they go to bed, and constantly throughout the day. (The book says they even use e-mail in the bath.) They use e-mail when making a phone call or having a face-to-face discussion would be more effective. Their e-mail time takes away from the time spent with people in real life, including their families.

And I have no doubt that this is true for some people. Certainly, workplaces that expect people to be checking e-mail all hours of the day can create real problems for their employees.

But the flip side is this: I also know plenty of people who can spend more time with friends and family because of e-mail. They can work from home, which provides them with more away-from-work time because there's no long commute. They can take more (and longer) vacations, doing just brief work-related e-mail check-ins.

Like any tool, e-mail can be misused. But it can also save time, allow us to respect another's time, and make us better writers. I recently had a straightforward question for my brother; the question didn't need an instant reply. I sent an e-mail carefully explaining my situation, and got exactly the answer I needed the next morning. (For those of you who are wondering, the question had to due with which iPad would best suit my needs: 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB.)

But I don't communicate with my brother entirely by e-mail. I got together with him and my sister-in-law for dinner the prior weekend, and I called my brother when I had something more nuanced to discuss with him. But the e-mail I sent didn't need this type of interaction, and it allowed him to reply at a time that suited his schedule; I didn't interrupt him for no good reason.

And as a self-employed person, I see e-mail as a source of empowerment, not tyranny; it gives me one more way to communicate with clients, and it lets me easily correspond with colleagues around the globe. Like anyone else, I sometimes get behind in clearing out my in box - but that's very different from feeling that e-mail is taking over my life.

It seems Ben Yagoda of The New York Times - who read the book, which I have not - had a similar reaction to it. He wrote: "In his zeal to expose e-mail’s dark side, Freeman, the editor of Granta, ignores its good and useful features."

So e-mail can work in opposite ways. It can control our time - or it can help us make better use of our time.

Do you feel tyrannized by e-mail? Leave a comment (or send an e-mail) and let me know!

Related Posts:
The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You
Filing the E-Mail - Or Not
Email Replies: Is Shorter Always Better?


Pauline Wiles said...

Hmmm, tyranny is a strong word.
I agree that for many people, their email situation is completely overwhelming.
But, in the early 90's it also helped me keep a long-distance romance alive, and even today, being connected like this to my parents, who are 5000 miles away, is an absolute blessing.
Perhaps we need to blame our use of it, rather than the tool itself?

Jeri Dansky said...

My thoughts exactly, Struggler!

Julie Bestry said...

Tyranny implies that the email controls us. I'm sure that's the case for many people but for me, it's exactly as you describe, Jeri. It allows me to protect my schedule and streamline my life. I'm a chatty person, so it's easy (when I want to talk) to get run off the rails when I receive an unexpected phone call. With emails, I can control to whom I communicate, when and how. I can check my mail when it suits me, and I can choose to filter, sort and compartmentalize. I can also save emails for reference and use my own emails as templates for speedier future writing, which I cannot do with a phone conversation.

I think email tyrannizes those who have no plan or strategy for using it. You've pegged it!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

I love e-mail! It's quite often the most efficient way to communicate, as you indicated in your example about checking in with your brother. But, in a corporate environment I imagine that the quantity of e-mail could become challenging.

One general problem I've noticed is that written communication forces people to be precise about what they're saying and we live in a society that doesn't seem to place enough value on that kind of effort. As a result, there can be miscommunication and time-wasting e-mail exchanges in which people have to explain what the meant.

It's also important to learn that the delete key is your friend!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Often typos need to be corrected, too, like "what they meant" instead of "what the meant" . . .

Janice Wallace said...

Loved your nuanced take on email. Use the right tool for the job and there is no tyranny. When a personal conversation with interaction is required use a phone call. When a straight forward question needs an answer, use email to ask it or answer it. And for goodness sake set some reasonable boundaries around when you will or will not be checking your email.

Marcie Lovett said...

Before I became a professional organizer, I worked for a company that was defined by email. People would call or stop you in the hallway to ask if you got their email and the controller demanded that everyone respond to email immediately.

If I had followed her directive, I never would have had time to do any work. Instead, I ignored the dictate and checked my email two or three times a day and when I had the need to send a message.

I can only imagine the amount of money wasted on the inefficiency of the tyrannical email expectations.

I see email as necessary and useful, but not when a reply is needed immediately. There are still some issues better suited for a quick phone call.

Cassi said...

I could not agree more. Back when I worked for a telcom firm and was expected to field literally hundreds of email questions a day, it did tyrannize me, but that was the job. I'm sure that paper tickets in my inbox would have done the same. However, under 'normal' circumstances, even normal 'corporate' circumstances, it can be a great tool. Now that I work for myself, I can get in touch with clients far easier via email than I could by phone... all without worrying that I'm interrupting their dinner.

On the personal side, I email my sister every single morning... our schedules don't match up well (she's already at the office by the time I roll out of bed), so phone calls wouldn't work, but in email we 'chat' for at least an hour a day!

Also, my 87 year old dad loves email. He's not well, so you never know when he might be napping, but he always appreciates waking up to a quick note or a picture of the kiddos.

Jeri Dansky said...

A huge "thank you" to everyone for the thoughtful comments!