The problem is that the average employee takes little time to communicate effectively. Or, they haven't developed the skills. Or, like it has for many, email has become like an arcade game in which we win by shooting the bastards down as they flood our inbox. What is said matters less than the quickness of the finger. This eventually develops into a deep form of gaming addiction in which we have to be ready 24x7 to fire!
I don't know what it is, but as the sphere of folks I routinely exchange e-mail with has grown beyond software engineers and ops/sysadmin guys, I've been increasingly frustrated by how bad it is. Some of the stuff I bitched about over tow years ago in ru stupid certainly hasn't gotten any better. But that was just scratching at the surface.
It's been too long since I ranted about something, here's a brief list of the the things that drive me nuts. It is by no means complete.
- Top posting. Outlook has done the world a huge disservice by encouraging folks to respond in summary format at the top of a message rather than using the inline responses that were common for so many years before this e-mail stuff became mainstream. The problem gets worse as threads get longer and I'm forced to read e-mail messages from bottom to top. WTF?! More about this: here, here, and here.
- Expectations about when I'll read a message. Honestly, if it's that important, why are you using e-mail? The first letter in "IM" stands for "Instant." Try that instead. And, like seemingly everyone else in the workplace, I wear a damned cell phone. When it rings, I generally answer it. The only real exceptions are when I'm in the restroom, when the caller has blocked caller ID, or when I'm in the middle of a meeting that is highly likely to be more important than your call. The more often I'm responding to your e-mail, the less work I'm probably getting done.
- Bad subject lines. You know, I thought we'd figured this out back in 1998 when Jakob Nielsen wrote Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines. You can argue with a lot of what he's said over the years, but this is one of the few things that very few people dispute. If you send me a message with a subject that I cannot figure out, I'm likely to read it after all the messages with reasonable subject lines.
- Screwed up punctuation. Question marks go at the end of questions. Always. If you omit question marks, when I'm skimming your message I may completely miss the fact that you're asking me something and file it away because it seemed informational only. And don't forget about your friend the apostrophe, otherwise known as the single quote.
- Sentences without subjects. Who was it that decided we can just stop putting subjects in our sentences? I clearly missed that memo but see it happening everywhere. For example, consider this tidbit: "Recommend not using the fuzzbot image on that frumple page." There are no less than three ways to interpret that: (1) You recommend that I don't use the image, in which case the sentence is missing an "I" at the beginning. (2) The team you're speaking on behalf of has decided to make that recommendation, in which case the sentence is missing a "We" at the beginning. (3) You are commanding me to make the recommendation, in which case the sentence is missing something like "I suggest that you" at the beginning. If you leave it up to me to figure out exactly what you mean, I'm always going to choose the one I most like.
- Broken threading. This is more a complaint about tools than anything, but some of the most popular mail software creates messages that are difficult to thread properly. Worse yet, they don't even offer a thread-based message view for their users. And the lame "group based on message subject" is not threading. Top posting doesn't help here when I'm trying to "manually" thread messages.
I really don't know what we can do about this. For some of it, I think we need better tools--much better. It's clear to me that not only to most people not "get" how e-mail quoting and threading work, they just don't care. Web-based mail services like Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, and GMail only serve to lower the bar further.
But some of this simply requires people to (1) care about their communication, and (2) take the time to do it well. Sadly, both of those seem to be rare.
I'm tempted to not allow comments on this post. I know it's going to mainly attract people who are looking for a good flame war. Oh, and it'll bring out a few of those who think that I'm somehow not entitled to an opinion--especially an "elitist" one.
Posted by jzawodn at December 05, 2004 07:18 PM