Pandora’s Click

To say that Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home is more a users’ manual than a book is not to belittle it. Email is like an appliance that we have been helplessly misusing because it arrived without instructions. Thanks to David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, our blind blunderings are over. With Shipley and Schwalbe’s excellent instructions in hand we can email as confidently as we load the dishwasher and turn on the microwave.

Shipley and Schwalbe are not exaggerating when they say that their guide is essential. For, in truth, email is more like a dangerous power tool than like a harmless kitchen appliance. The more skillful (or lucky) among us have escaped serious injury, but many, perhaps most, of us have suffered the equivalent of burns, lost fingers, electric shocks, and bone fractures. Incautious emailing has cost jobs, ruined friendships, threatened marriages, subverted projects, even led to jail time. “On email, people aren’t quite themselves,” Shipley and Schwalbe write. “They are angrier, less sympathetic, less aware, more easily wounded, even more gossipy and duplicitous. Email has a tendency to encourage the lesser angels of our nature.” It also has the capacity for instant retribution. In one of their cautionary illustrations, Shipley and Schwalbe hold up an email exchange between an executive and a secretary at a large American company in China. The executive nastily wrote:

You locked me out of my office this evening because you assume I have my office key on my person. With immediate effect, you do not leave the office until you have checked with all the managers you support.

The secretary wrote back:

I locked the door because the office has been burgled in the past. Even though I’m your subordinate, please pay attention to politeness when you speak. This is the most basic human courtesy. You have your own keys. You forgot to bring them, but you still want to say it’s someone else’s fault.

She then performed the two-click operation that sent copies of her and her boss’s emails to the entire staff of the company. Before long the exchange appeared in the Chinese press and led to the executive’s resignation.

Another anecdote that Shipley and Schwalbe tell to illustrate email’s special killer combination of winking at our bad behavior and horribly punishing us for it also involves a boss and secretary. In this case, the secretary spilled ketchup on the boss’s trousers, and he wrote an email asking for the £4 it cost to have the trousers cleaned (the company was a British law firm). Receiving no reply, he pursued the matter. Finally he—and hundreds of people at the firm—received this email:

Subject: Re: Ketchup trousers

With reference to the email below, I must apologize for not getting back to you straight away but due to my mother’s sudden illness, death and funeral I have had more pressing issues than your £4.

I apologize again …

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Letters

The Real E-You October 25, 2007