the Jimmy Durante way to email etiquette
January 28, 2010
… and having more fun!
Hello 2010, somewhat belatedly. After an optimistic start on New Year’s Eve, I’ve somehow managed to lose my job already, so I’m taking a long view on the news that we’re ‘out of recession’.
But even if some great new job comes along at lightning speed, will it all go smoothly? I feel as if my inner text pixie is out of touch with the times.
Clearly we are all very important busy people nowadays, and with email taking over a larger and larger part of our days, some of the niceties appear to be getting left at the roadside. The pioneers in the Wild West famously did this kind of thing, when it became a matter of choosing between surviving the desert or ditching Grandma’s old pianola. I’ve seen tragic old photos of a deserted prairie, with lone rocking chairs and Grandfather clocks dotting the wilderness.
But are we really in all-out survival mode? I mean, has it really reached the point where saying “how was your weekend,” or writing your whole name, would compromise your ability to carry on existing?
Emails are, first and foremost, communication with other human beings. They’re quick, simple communication – not exactly hard. When I speak to people I can’t help being polite, especially to those I don’t know. Nodding to the security guard when you go in, or smiling at the girl who makes your coffee. Or looking for work, for example. So I write what must now look like stuffy, pointless missives: ‘Dear So-&-so, thanks for your… I’d be very interested to…. Could you possibly send me some…? Thanks again for thinking of me, and I look forward… All best, etc’.
I just did that this morning, chasing up a lead for possible freelance work, recommended by a friend – who had received an email request for people who might be able to do this freelance work. A lovely email I wrote. Thirty seconds later I got this reply:
‘Kathy we need an Indian and will be paying in inr I am afraid. all best c’
You see, I’m no use to those people. I was lucky to get even that, I suppose. The friend who referred me there is hyper-professional, so this information can not have been clearly conveyed in the first instance, and I thought I was on some kind of professional footing; but it was the back foot.
In short, just a little unnecessary ‘Oh.’ moment. ‘Kathy’.
In this job that just ended, there was a girl with whom I was meant to be working closely. She didn’t like me. At all. We never got to the bottom of what that was all about, but it did mean that I was sort of relieved when the job finished (for entirely other reasons). She would sit at the next desk to me all day, not speaking, but cc’ing me into dozens of emails. That was the way we ‘kept up with what each other was doing’. I’d receive an email, not be involved in it, not know the person it was to, not know what the conversation was about, a few weeks into the job, and somehow I’d be expected to feel ‘in the loop’. I spent a lot of time pointlessly reading these big long trails, trying to find out what I was supposed to do.
This colleague (I use the word loosely) hardly used any greetings or salutations: just launched straight into the text. She never asked anyone how they were. There were no questions. There was a lot of criticising people’s work, and ‘i want’, or ‘what i want is…’ It was all completely impersonal. Even her out-of-office message over the holidays said simply: ‘xxxxxx will be out of the office until january 4th’.
There were no capital letters. There were many, many typos.
And there was no signing-off. Just the embedded email signature at the bottom, with all the bumf.
Now, I just think that’s rude.
I may be alone, and typing this I do feel sadly like the aged great-aunt complaining about the manners of the young gels today, but this trend towards stark, semi-literate, impersonal utilitarianism seems both depressing and alarming.
Depressing because it takes away all the nice little moments of friendliness out of one’s working day. Duh.
Alarming because I wonder if we’ve raised a generation who think the human race can survive like that. Choosing who they feel like associating with, even in a work scenario.
Depressingly, the message that is overwhelmingly given out is: ‘You don’t matter’. ‘I am far too busy to type carefully, or remember your name, and I am also important enough to expect you to do all the work in this exchange’. It says, ‘There is no personal contact between us. We are machines for the accomplishment of tasks off a list’.
Alarmingly, it also says: “‘Nothing matters’. Because if care does not need to be taken, then what does need to be? When does care need to be taken?
There was a time when it was recognised – even in the mercantile heyday of let’s say, fifties and sixties America, which we all know about now because of Mad Men – that social interaction greases the wheels of commerce. It actually helps to get things done. (Perhaps best understood by the workers of today if we referred to it in relation to ‘networking’; it’s what you do with people after you’ve networked them.) I can’t quite believe that it would be possible to get very far being curt and brusque with everyone – or am I really, seriously missing something?
Watch an old movie like The Apartment and you see Fred MacMurray talking to everyone on the way up in the lift – or, wait, no, maybe that’s Jack Lemmon, the good guy. The point is, he talks to everyone: receptionists, lift operators, secretaries, typists, colleagues, bosses. As the apocryphal quote from the great comic performer Jimmy Durante – a paid-up member of my grandmother’s generation – goes: ‘Be nice to people on the way up. You’ll meet them again on your way down’.
I realise that was a long time ago and we’re talking about people who can’t even remember a time before email, and no one cares about my grandmother or her generation any more. But she had the most impeccable manners of anyone I ever met. And she was a workaholic, and she really got things done.
So I’m going to keep on being nice to people, and polite, and hoping it makes them feel a little happier as they go through their day.