Ordained Servant Online
Review: The Essential Guide to Email
Gregory E. Reynolds
Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, 247 pages, $19.95.
Have you ever inadvertently sent a confidential email to the wrong person? When church officers do this it can be disastrous. David Shipley and Will Schwalbe will help church officers avoid such pitfalls. The authors are genuine media ecologists—observing the nature of the medium of electronic mail and insightfully assessing its benefits and liabilities, with recommendations on how to embrace the former and avoid the latter: "Seven Big Reasons to Love Email" (17-20); and "Eight Reasons You May Not Want to Email" (22-29); "Seven Big Reasons to Use the Telephone Instead of Email" (42-43). The book is full of memorable rules of thumb such as reminding us that the telephone is often more efficient; always more personal.
This is a long overdue book of etiquette for email users. Shipley and Schwalbe demonstrate a keen perception of the unique "messages" built into every medium. E.g., "We remember that letters are permanent and so tend to use our best spelling and grammar." And "We also email fast—too fast" (10). Email's lack of face-to-face perceptions tends to undermine "social intelligence" (11). There can be no doubt that the authors have read McLuhan. "How you send something can have a profound impact on what you're sending. Your method of delivery sends a message of its own" (15). "It's really a matter of taking the time to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each form of communication before committing to one" (16).
As fans of humanity, Shipley and Schwalbe are high on the personal, and sometimes with a nice touch of humor: "Don't forget to show up sometimes" (50). The golden rule of communication technologies is: "Never do anything electronically that you would want others to do to you in person" (51).
Shipley and Schwalbe are also fans of good form. They pay attention to the details of good email correspondence, with an eye for protecting reputations, feelings, privacy, and old-fashioned good manners. The ease and speed of email tend to foster sloppiness and breed informality. Thus, extra caution is necessary. This book is full of things we tend to almost completely ignore, like the subject line. "The Subject line is the most important, most neglected line in your email" (78). Using concise, specific information makes your email stand out from the mob. And above all, remember that everything you send is potentially permanent, and potentially public.
I used to think that the "Hi" or "Hello" so many people use as a greeting, whether or not they know you, was a new form I needed to adjust to. Not so! "Dear" is still preferred, unless you are on very familiar terms. As it turns out, many of the things I learned about letter writing in school still pertain to email, at least when it comes to initial contacts. On the other hand, with the proper header, an exchange may be efficiently carried on with single sentences, phrases, or words. This is a benefit of the efficiency and speed of email.
Another important matter of form is good grammar. Again, the informality of email tends towards poor grammar. The authors have high regard for the nuances of languages as tools of communication. Poor grammar and misused words reflect poorly on you, and detract from the effectiveness of your message. This has not changed with technology.
Even sages, however, have blind spots. Shipley and Schwalbe are far too sanguine about instant messaging (IM); and a related subject: multitasking, a euphemism for trying to work with multiple distractions. The lack of concentration in our work is not only proving a very inefficient use of time, but as well an often ineffective one. Quality work in many fields is on the wane. The authors do offer a helpful distinction between many conflicting tasks, like checking email during a meeting, and sending a document pertinent to the meeting during the meeting. Fair enough, but I remain a skeptic.
Shipley and Schwalbe conclude with two memorable aphorisms: "Think before you send. Send email you would like to receive" (222). Loaded with sagacious advice for the everyday email user, this is a must-read for sessions and diaconates. It will save you lots grief. Miss Manners could not have done better.
Gregory Edward Reynolds
Amoskeag Presbyterian Church
Manchester, New Hampshire