On the Virtue of Brevity in Email


Our use of the Internet not only reconfigures the wiring of our brains, as a new study shows almost every week now. It’s also changing our moral code, specifically as that code is reflected in etiquette, and more specifically the etiquette of personal communication. There are now rules of email. And those rules expose a generation gap.

Long emails are, more frequently than not, the worst. When you send someone an email, you make a demand on their time. If you use more words than necessary, you waste their time. Sure we’re talking maybe a fraction of a minute, but given the number of emails the average person sends in a day those fractions add up pretty quick.

This conflicts with an older style of correspondence that associated pleasantries with tact. Tactful emails now are efficient, and pleasantries are a waste. People accustomed to pleasantries see their absence as rude, or a sign of being cross. They infer a tone that isn’t there, while people accustomed to brevity know how difficult it can be to ascertain tone from an email.

The efficient emailer often has to conform to the old style to assuage hurt feelings. This is just as terrible as the other thing, because it requires the sender to waste time and energy creating more words than necessary.

Long emails are the collateral damage of all the other new forms of communication that now dominate our lives. Twitter has a 140 character max. Text messages are physically more difficult to compose than anything written on a typewriter-sized keyboard; the act of speaking is slower, so to preserve the speed we shorten the message. “LOL” and “OMG” are hyper-efficient ways of conveying emotion, while “TL;DR” lives by its own code, using an acronym so we don’t even have to read the words. And if you ask Siri a question that’s too long, she probably won’t understand. 

“As we learn to speak to Siri,” wrote Adam Lisagor a while back, “we’ll learn more about how we formulate ideas into words, how to express those so that they may be understood with less margin of error, ultimately shortening the gap between intention and comprehension. Which is to say, Siri will teach us how to talk to Siri but maybe more importantly, how to talk to each other.” Adam is right, but I think it’s part of a larger trend in communication. Being good to each other now requires that we get to the point.

up next: On the Virtue of Brevity in Blog Posts.

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  • 2 years ago
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