E-mail a Detriment to Written Communication?
Writing skills declining in corporate America
In 1997, enjoying my first internet connection--I'd only used business networks prior to that--I found myself puzzled by the atrocious punctuation, lack of sentence structure, and generally-erratic excuses for communication that seemed to abound.
"E-mail is a party to which English teachers have not been invited," Hogan said. "It has companies tearing their hair out."
A recent survey of 120 American corporations reached a similar conclusion. The study, by the National Commission on Writing, a panel established by the College Board, concluded that a third of employees in the nation's blue-chip companies wrote poorly and that businesses were spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training.
The problem shows up not only in e-mail but also in reports and other texts, the commission said.
"It's not that companies want to hire Tolstoy," said Susan Traiman, a director at the Business Roundtable, an association of leading chief executives whose corporations were surveyed in the study. "But they need people who can write clearly, and many employees and applicants fall short of that standard." ....
C-Net (New York Times)
My brother, who had worked for software companies for several years at that point, explained, "Just wait. Once people figure it out, e-mail and the web will bring a new Golden Age of written communication."
And why should I not believe it? That people were speaking on the phone and not writing letters hadn't really troubled me, since I spent much of high school on the telephone, and my love letters to girlfriends in those years were more fanciful than communicative. But it seemed to me at the time that predicting a new Golden Age of writing wasn't particularly perverse.
And even though we didn't pause to think of video mail or voice-chat, retrospect suggests I cannot blame those factors for what many perceive as a continuing decline of American writing skills.
Sam Dillon's article for the New York Times (reprinted at C-Net) includes a few examples:
One might also note the clear difference between paper and electronica in comparing the advice of UI-Chicago professor Linda Landis Andrews with that of Kaitlin Duck Sherwood of Webfoot.com. Andrews takes issue with abuse of exclamation points:
i need help i am writing a essay on writing i work for this company and my boss want me to help improve the workers writing skills can yall help me with some information thank you (Inquiry to online school for business writing)
I updated the Status report for the four discrepancies Lennie forward us via e-mail (they in Barry file).. to make sure my logic was correct It seems we provide Murray with incorrect information ... However after verifying controls on JBL - JBL has the indicator as B ???? - I wanted to make sure with the recent changes - I processed today - before Murray make the changes again on the mainframe to 'C'. (Systems Analyst to supervisor, Palo Alto tech firm)
hI KATHY i am sending u the assignmnet again,i had sent you the assignment earlier but i didnt get a respond. If u get this assgnment could u please respond . thanking u for ur cooperation (Student to business-writing teacher, UC Extension, Santa Cruz)
E-mails - that are received from Jim and I are not either getting open or not being responded to. I wanted to let everyone know that when Jim and I are sending out e-mails (example- who is to be picking up parcels) I am wanting for who ever the e-mail goes to to respond back to the e-mail. Its important that Jim and I knows that the person, intended, had read the e-mail. This gives an acknowledgment that the task is being completed. I am asking for a simple little 2 sec. Note that says "ok", "I got it", or Alright. (Purchasing manager at construction company to employees)
C-Net (New York Times)
On the other hand, Sherwood suggests that exclamation points could help convey intonation, and avoid confusion in e-mail.
Exclamation points were an issue when Linda Landis Andrews, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, led a workshop in May for midcareer executives at an automotive corporation based in the Midwest. Their exasperated supervisor had insisted that the men improve their writing.
"I get a memo from them and cannot figure out what they're trying to say," the supervisor wrote Andrews.
When at her request the executives produced letters they had written to a supplier who had failed to deliver parts on time, she was horrified to see that tone-deaf writing had turned a minor business snarl into a corporate confrontation moving toward litigation.
"They had allowed a hostile tone to creep into the letters," she said. "They didn't seem to understand that those letters were just toxic."
"People think that throwing multiple exclamation points into a business letter will make their point forcefully," Andrews said. "I tell them they're allowed two exclamation points in their whole life."
C-Net (New York Times)
At this point, I must object. Sherwood also advises that electronic communication is more conversational than traditional writing; I suspect this is a viable general justification for her advice regarding exclamation points. However, I believe she misses the point entirely. In fact, I will go so far as to call her advice about exclamation points idiotic.
"If you want to indicate stronger emphasis, use all capital letters and toss in some extra exclamation points," Sherwood advises in her guide, available at Webfoot.com, where she offers a vivid example:
"Should I boost the power on the thrombo?
"NO!!!! If you turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat the motors, and IT MIGHT EXPLODE!!"
C-Net (New York Times)
For instance, from Webfoot.com:
I understand what she's getting after, but it really bugs me because it is another example of how our culture is rolling over for the lazy. Don't get me wrong; I've never been economically viable and one of the ways I go crazy when I work is in trying to do my job correctly; it's generally impossible to to fulfill every point of your duty when, say, you're not given the equipment to do so, or your position was designed to serve one-third the number of people it does at present, or some of those points are unwritten and ne'er spoken with the result that you have no idea that this is expected of you. Really, I understand.
Electronic communication, because of its speed and broadcasting ability, is fundamentally different from paper-based communication. Because the turnaround time can be so fast, email is more conversational than traditional paper-based media.
In a paper document, it is absolutely essential to make everything completely clear and unambiguous because your audience may not have a chance to ask for clarification. With email documents, your recipient can ask questions immediately. Email thus tends, like conversational speech, to be sloppier than communications on paper.
But it's a cultural problem. Americans are productive as a nation because they're innovative and absolutely consumed by their work. If anybody knows someone who works "flex-time", ask them what that term is supposed to describe. And then ask them how much they actually work. (We've stopped bugging my mother about it; she seems somehow happy putting 80 hours a week into a job description that covers something like 38. But she's unusual; most of her business associates--pharmaceutical representatives to doctors' offices--are permanently weary.)
In the end, there ought to be little or no difference whatsoever between spoken and written communication, much less written and other-written.
When I was in college, one of my favorite catch-phrases was my response to the question, "How are you?" I would usually shrug, smile, and say, "I'm alive." Now, my friends at the time knew exactly what that meant: "I'm alive, and that's enough for me." It's a way of saying, "Fine," without saying the word. And yes, it turned out to be problematic. People who didn't know me furrowed their brow. Someone eventually let me in on the secret that people were taking it as a complaint. Frankly, I still don't get it, but that was spoken language complete with gestures and facial expressions. My closest friends understand my turns of phrase via e-mail; they regard them as if I was speaking: What does his voice sound like when he says that? What does his face look like? Does he do that little faux-bashful thing that tells me he's euphemizing?
Email also does not convey emotions nearly as well as face-to-face or even telephone conversations. It lacks vocal inflection, gestures, and a shared environment. Your correspondent may have difficulty telling if you are serious or kidding, happy or sad, frustrated or euphoric. Sarcasm is particularly dangerous to use in email.
I can invent new turns of phrase and there are some people who know exactly how to interpret a string of words that looks out of place and unfamiliar. My brother, or the NASA engineer, or the PhD, the schoolteacher ... these aren't stupid people. (Two graduated from Stanford and the other two have advanced degrees.) Is it that they're "smart", or that they know me? I mean, straight away, people who can't see my face or hear my voice know what cues to assign my writing. That they're smart helps in other ways, but that they know me is the primary reason they know how to infer my tone.
And that's the key:
I rarely use smilies; here at Sciforums they're okay because they turn into little pictures. But 'tis true; my lack of smilies contributed to people's perception of negativity, and over time I've become accustomed to using them in either a condescending (e.g. ) or irreverent and useless (e.g. , ) manner. But they don't really do much to communicate emotion. In my personal emails, I don't use them at all, and I tend to stay away from netspeak shorthand (e.g. "How RU?").
Hogan, who founded his online Business Writing Center a decade ago after years of teaching composition at Illinois State University here, says that the use of multiple exclamation points and other nonstandard punctuation like the :-) symbol, are fine for personal e-mail but that companies have erred by allowing experimental writing devices to flood into business writing ....
.... "E-mail has just erupted like a weed ... people now just let thoughts drool out onto the screen."
C-Net (New York Times)
And the reason for this, perhaps, is that I don't communicate at a certain, intermediate level. I don't spend a lot of time with iChat or MSN, so the people I communicate with most often don't need smilies. And because this circle of people I know is better-educated than I am, they have less use than I do for shorthand.
So I admit there's something I may be missing. But it seems to me that the need to clarify with "nonstandard punctuation" arises from a certain disconnection between writer and reader. If, for instance, I go into a retro-goth chatroom (are there any?) and use old turns of phrase from the 1980s art-school scene, those folks I don't know ought not need extra clarification for context. Should I be silly enough to go art-school in business correspondence, well, perhaps the need to clarify with nonstandard punctuation suggests that I ought not use that retro-goth style.
But to examine the Webfoot example--
"NO!!!! If you turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat the motors, and IT MIGHT EXPLODE!!"
--suggests that the tone of communication may become too conversational for the circumstances.
The example in the article comes from "A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email", which is the same document I've quoted from Webfoot:
The calmly, simply written phrase, "Absolutely not," would suffice. The situation might warrant a single exclamation point; there's no law against the damn things.
If you want to indicate stronger emphasis, use all capital letters and toss in some extra exclamation marks. Instead of:
> Should I just boost the power on the thrombo?
No, if you turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat the motors and it might explode.
> Should I just boost the power on the thrombo?
NO!!!! If you turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat the motors and IT MIGHT EXPLODE!!
Note that you should use capital letters sparingly. Just as loss of sight can lead to improved hearing, the relative lack of cues to emotion in email makes people hyper-sensitive to any cues that might be there. Thus, capital letters will convey the message that you are shouting.
As the example goes, it sounds like an exchange between Mr. Scott and Captain Kirk. (Imagine Kirk doing the "IT MIGHT EXPLODE!!" part.) Communicating by e-mail, or even instant chat, allows you the time to think about what you're going to say. After all, it's not like the examples given at Webfoot involve long, communicative e-mails.
In the same time it takes to write the capitalized, exclamation-rich response above, one can simply write, "Absolutely not. The unit will overheat and may explode."
And frankly, if your associate can't figure out the urgency of a left-handed thrombo exploding, s/he might not be the best person for the job.
Now here's the part that really bugs me:
You know, it's not that one must be Mark Twain, or Aldous Huxley. One need not have the emotional control of a Ray Bradbury or Joyce Carol Oates. There is a vast difference between being Mark Twain and simply being able to communicate. The underlying presumption of Sherwood's advice involves the idea that the person reading your e-mail is a moron. And that leads back to the idea that this is a cultural problem.
I should warn you that there is a minority that doesn't like the shortcuts I showed you. They argue that if Mark Twain could convey emotion without resorting to such artifice, then we should too. Well, I'm not as skilled a writer as Mark Twain, and usually don't have as many words to make my tone as clear as he did. I believe that there is a greater danger of angering or offending someone by not using these shortcuts than there is of annoying someone by using them.
After everything else people do, it seems the last thing they want to put effort into is communication. Of course, recognizing the need to communicate, people create informal rules that cause them to waste more words and keystrokes than it's worth. The result is a further fracturing of human communication: not only is there a growing gap between spoken and properly-written communication, there is now a gap between forms of written communication. In order to not put the effort into being "as skilled a writer as Mark Twain", or even something less viciously-phrased, people now face the possible necessity of learning three forms of communication, all in the same language. If we throw in the difference between how many of us speak to different audiences--e.g. grandmother or best friend--there's four at a minimum.
And all of this is apparently for the sake of style and pretentious aesthetics. I promise you, on my life, that properly-written English, in either the European or American form, is far more aesthetic, communicative, and enjoyable than any fleet of emoticons and bad punctuation. And I promise you as well that it's easier.
And just look at the Webfoot examples, which clearly include business e-mails. I dare anyone looking for a job to send out twenty resum้s with the cover letters written in netspeak, complete with emoticons, abusive capital letters, and rich with exclamation points. Seriously, let me know how it goes. Without sarcasm: I would be very interested in the result.
We're accommodating idiocy, and any number of political groups complains about "lowering the bar" in society. The "New Golden Age" of writing is turning into the remnants of Babel, and all because we haven't the confidence in ourselves to communicate with people we presume to be idiots. Or something like that.
Ten years ago, when the Webfoot guide was created, perhaps Ms. Sherwood had a point. But then again, one of the best writers I know of once advised me against italics; comparatively, my use of italic type is abusive. This, too, could be said to be a concession much like those I disdain, but in all honesty it came from reading too much Stephen King over the course of a year when I was about fourteen. I really shouldn't carry it over like I do; on that note, I've actually gone back and killed some of the italic tags in this post.
In the end, though, there is a difference between "reading" and "reading comprehension". Comprehending requires more than the mere process of looking at or reciting words in sequence. Creating an additional form of communication is the counterintuitive solution to questions of comprehension.
Let's pretend for a moment that everyone you communicate with electronically is so moronic as to require constant clarification with unconventional punctuation and cutesy emoticons. One question that begs an answer: "How did this happen?"
Now, obviously, this isn't the case. So to scale back into reality, how is it that people get university and sometimes advanced degrees without being able to read or write a simple e-mail? What the hell happened?
We can't point to the past and say it's a carryover from more primitive times. I tried using shorthand when e-mailing my partner's cellphone (150 character max., I think), but I can't stand it. So what is it? Is it really a product of how our culture treats education? Have basic things like communicating with one another become so secondary to specialization? Consider in the 1990s, when healthcare was so luxurious that people had the temerity to complain about doctors' bedside manner. That people are now begging for even a rude doctor is beside the point. The doctors never set out to be rude, they just came across that way because, frankly, they carry heavy loads. They were so specialized they "forgot" how to communicate with people in certain ways.
Some letters to the editor of the New York Times:
I note the letters because they lend to the idea that this is a cultural problem. The reading and writing problems costing American corporations up to $3b helping employees improve their writing and communication skills. As a recruitment director for a Silicon Valley firm put it, "Considering how highly educated our people are, many can't write clearly in their day-to-day work."
As a university professor, I am troubled by the inability of students (and their working counterparts) to differentiate between their off-the-cuff, private e-mail style and public, formal writing. The speed and informality of Internet and mobile messaging, free of proper spelling, grammar, punctuation and syntax, are partly responsible.
But secondary schools and universities are also culpable: workers have managed to graduate without knowing how to write. In secondary schools as well as colleges and universities, writing-based learning is being cut in favor of recall and test-based curriculums.
Schools need to re-emphasize solid analytical reading and writing, usually taught by much-embattled humanities departments .... (UI-Chicago Asst. Prof. of Art History)
"What Corporate America Cannot Build: A Sentence" neglects a major source of the lamentable prose of many company employees: the decline of the liberal arts education.
Driven by economic anxieties, both parents and undergraduates often assume that the principal purpose of higher education is preparation for a particular job, which they believe is best accomplished through courses specifically tailored to that field. But my literature classes, like my colleagues' courses in history, philosophy and so on, are not mere frills. Rather - in addition to all its other vital functions - a liberal arts education teaches skills in reading, writing and thinking that, as your article demonstrates, are crucial to any number of jobs. (Univ. of Wisconsin professor of English)
"What Corporate America Cannot Build: A Sentence" makes several correct comments about the dismal quality of communication skills and commerce.
It should also be noted that reading and writing are inseparable. From this, we can extrapolate a lesson for corporate America and the country in general - read so that you can write. The positive effect of clear, concise written communication is obvious; the opposite may catalyze inadvertent negative consequences. (Adult-education reading and writing teacher)
Your photo of the writing instructor in front of a PowerPoint presentation captures nicely the reason that good writing is increasingly rare today. Bullet points have replaced the use of complete sentences and carefully constructed paragraphs. Sadly, this is true not only of the corporate world, but the academy as well. (DePaul Univ. associate professor of philosophy)
Every five or 10 years, you publish an article about corporate writing concerns. But nothing changes because corporations don't really care .... (Some guy in Connecticut)
New York Times
How widespread is this? What will it take to alleviate the situation? When a British writer went off about apostrophes, the Americans scoffed at how many technical mistakes her editors allowed into the printing. But hey, now the complaint is coming from the one place Americans pay attention to: the bottom line.
Three billion dollars a year because college-educated people can't write coherent e-mails? It's an epidemic at least. I have problems with the way they teach corporate people to communicate, as well (specifically, an odd insistence on eliminating the occurrence of past-tense verbs in writing, which, while it saves a bundle on "was" and "have been", makes language awkward, and furthermore accomplishes nothing positive about gerunds).
But those problems seem rather small, now.
You don't have to be Mark Twain. Besides, Mark Twain is just a bit overrated. But the point is that you don't have to win Nobel or Pulitzer Prizes or Iowa Awards. You just have to be able to communicate. And if conventional communication is so troublesome or offensive, what's the point of inventing a new form? When it's something more tangible, what do we say? "Do the work. There is no free lunch."
Once upon a time, the communicative problem was presuming that people were too smart. I know that sounds weird, but there was even a time at Sciforums where one could be called "elitist" if you didn't dumb it down a certain degree. Think of a child's game. (I watched children on Zoom try to do this sometime this year.) Very simply: go into a kitchen with a friend, presuming it is sufficiently stocked, and give your friend step-by-step instructions on making a peanut butter sandwich. Your friend is to do only what you say in the most literal context possible. It took the kids on Zoom a couple tries before they could even get the bread out of the bag because they presumed the sandwich-makers would figure out for themselves to open the freaking bag and take the lid off the peanut butter. Certes, it is an exaggeration, but one of the darkest days in computer technical support is the day that e-mail gained popularity among the elderly and computer illiterate. Those silly questions that go around workplaces? They're real. "Is the computer plugged in? Is it turned on?" I mean, how much has to be presumed before you get to the story about the coffee cup in the CD-ROM?
These days, though, the point seems to be to presume people are stupid. "What if he doesn't understand me? I should put a little emoticon there to show him I'm happy."
Or what of that damnable Webfoot example: "Gosh, I don't know if he understands how bad it will be if the thrombo explodes. I'd better use some capital letters and extra exclamation points to make it clear, just in case."
I mean, really, who's on the other end there? Homer Simpson? I mean, as much as I enjoyed the Captain Kirk moment, Mr. Scott is far too intelligent to think he could boost the thrombo to eleven.
Just how stupid is the guy if he needs the extra capital letters and exclamation points? Or is it just important to work in that personalized aspect? I mean, I don't want to oppress anyone, here. Sure, I suppose I can see how the product exploding during a sales demo is secondary to making sure you get to be you. But that in itself would suggest an entirely new problem that I won't even begin to attempt describing.
We can do better as a society. The least we can ask of ourselves is that the productive workers and good citizens we attempt to create with our educational system be capable of basic communication.
A note to my international neighbors - Yes, this is in large part why so many people excuse "Bushisms". We know what he meant; like that time he said the U.S. government was hard at work finding new ways to hurt Americans. There are many, many educated people in this country who have desperate difficulty communicating. It might be perceived as cruel to suggest that this president, who sounds an awful lot like many of these challenged folks, isn't up to par. It might hurt their self-esteem. So despite the problems it causes, people would rather invent new ways to excuse, perpetuate, and even encourage poor communication skills. Who knows? Maybe three billion dollars isn't enough to get people's attention anymore. That's only about twelve Alex Rodriguez baseball contracts.