Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Trouble With E-Mail

How many e-mails do you get every day? I receive around 150 messages a day, and the majority of them require some sort of response or action. I’d bet it’s the same for most writers, especially those of us working primarily on the Internet. For press releases, news flashes, and notices about library books that are due, e-mail is great. I can take care of those messages at any time of day or night with a few clicks. Most of the time, e-mail is an effective way to communicate. But like most utilitarian written communication, e-mail has one glaring deficiency: it can’t convey tone of voice, facial expression, or body language. Writers know the importance of non-verbal cues—when we’re writing narratives, we describe those things. When we’re responding to e-mails, however, that’s not usually the case.

You’ve probably read that up to 93% of communication is non-verbal. This number comes from studies at UCLA and if you Google “93 communication nonverbal” you’ll see that a whole bunch of people have been working hard to clarify or even debunk this finding. Their assertion is that this misunderstood statistic makes a blanket statement about all communication when it only applies to certain circumstances. If you’ve ever had an ugly e-mail exchange with someone, however, you know that there are plenty of instances in which that 93% thing holds true. That’s why we put in little smiley icons in our e-mails or write LOL. Sarcasm, humor, and witty remarks—minus body language and tone of voice—can often come across as just plain rude. I once had a terrible e-mail snafu with a boss (complicated by her decision to hit “reply to all” so everyone could read her cutting comments to me) because she interpreted my statements as insubordinate. I almost quit over that e-mail. That experience taught me some valuable e-mail lessons that I use every day:

For professional e-mails:

• Leave out humor, sarcasm, or witty remarks. Cheerful is acceptable. Snarky is not.
• Take a deep breath and wait before responding to an e-mail that sounds ugly. Double the wait time if it’s your boss.
• Concentrate on the words alone. Totally suspend conclusions beyond a strict interpretation of just the words.
• When responding, keep it short, simple and professional. Do not try to slide in a dig at perceived insults.

For personal e-mails:

• Ask for clarification on comments that sound funky. “Did you mean,” or “Is everything okay,” or any other variation will do.
• If it sounds really awful, pick up the phone and call.
• When attempting humor, be clear that you’re being a smartie and not a jerk. Use some smiley icons, LOL, or anything else that communicates “I am joking.”
• Call them. Seriously. Before they un-friend you on Facebook.
Photo courtesy of Chelsea Oakes

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Writer, Interrupted

"Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around." –Stephen King

Almost ten years ago, I decided it was time to make a career change and do what I’d always wanted to do for a living: write. I naively imagined my writerly-life-to-be as Shangri-La with a bookstore and a Starbucks. What I didn’t know was that almost no one else in my life had that same vision. Not only was I alone in my Shangri-La-bookstore-Starbucks fantasy, I was also the only working writer that many of my friends and family had ever met. They had no idea about the basics of a writer’s life, much less the idealized version I had in my head.

My friends and family were confused. For instance, why couldn’t I take their calls while I was writing? And if I did answer the phone, why wasn’t I available to talk for hours? After all, if I was self-employed, didn’t I get to do whatever I wanted? Eventually, I gave up trying to explain that when I left the world of 9-5 employment, I also left the world of a guaranteed paycheck—along with paid lunches, sick leave, and vacation. One of my friends got angry when I told her that I could not help her paint her house during the middle of my work day. People who called when I was writing left me irate messages: “Terrisa! I know you’re there! Pick up the phone!” and were irked when I didn’t call them back until after my work hours were over. My husband was aghast that “working at home” did not mean “cleans house and does laundry all day,” and told me so. I knew that if I didn’t set some firm boundaries, I would not be a writer. I would be a unemployed person who wrote occasionally.

After the people in my life reluctantly (and grudgingly) realized that I was not going to give up my bewildering new career, the complaints I heard changed. Some variation of “You work all the time” started cropping up in conversations. Instead of assuming I was available all the time, my friends and family were hesitant to call me. When my very ill mother told me she didn’t want to bother me because I was so busy all the time, I realized that I’d crossed the line from firm boundaries to tunnel vision. I pictured the pained look on people’s faces as they contemplated calling me: “Well, yes, little Lisa does need the blood transfusion right away and Terrisa’s the only one with a compatible blood type, but do we really want to call her? She’s so busy.”

I learned to ask myself, “When I was employed by someone else, would I have taken time off for this?” If the answer is “yes,” I make adjustments accordingly. I’ve learned to think in terms of what I can do instead of what I can’t. Sometimes that means I have to stay up late to meet a deadline. Sometimes it means that I have to put a project on the back burner. When I read Stephen King’s quote (above) in On Writing, that summed it up for me. Yes, I had made a deliberate choice to become a writer, along with all that it entailed. But even if I’d discovered that Shangri-La-bookstore-Starbucks place, it would have been lonely if I’d arrived all alone.
Photo courtesy of Martin.