Friday, 4 September 2009

Do we need an 'unsend mail' button?

HAVE you ever walked away from an infuriating encounter thinking of all the clever put-downs you wish you’d had the presence of mind to come out with moments earlier?
I think we all have. But in most cases it’s probably really as well that our witticisms – or our true feelings – don’t emerge in the heat of the moment.
Somehow the restraint that seems to hold us back naturally in face-to-face meetings doesn’t always work to hold back the emailing impulse.
A few years ago I had a colleague, based at another office, with whom I corresponded mostly electronically. To see some of the emails we exchanged you might think we were forever rubbing each other up the wrong way.
In fact, whenever we met we got along fine. But without the benefit of facial expressions, body language or even the tone of voice that can help on the phone we were frequently at loggerheads. Winding each other up by simple misunderstanding.
Which is perhaps not surprising if you consider recent research suggesting that a mere seven per cent of face-to-face communication is conveyed by the actual words we use.
Smily emoticons such as :-) and ;-) or even :-p can help a little, but they’re a pretty inexact tool to convey real speech.
All this might not seem very good news for a writer. And it does suggest that maybe the research was carried out with a particularly inarticulate group of subjects.
Nevertheless, it’s a fact that emails sent in haste or with undue thought can come back to bite their sender.
The angry letter written in the middle of the night is usually best left unsent. When the writing takes place at a computer terminal it’s all too easy to hit the Send button while you’re still in that nocturnal muddle of emotion.
Maybe a good addition to an email program would be a delaying system that asks you in the morning if you still want to send the message you dashed off in the night.
A little dialogue box, perhaps, that asks “Have you slept on this?” before it allows you to commit yourself.
Not that that would have been much help to another ex-colleague of mine who marked his departure for a new job by leaving messages to everyone in the office telling them just what he thought of them. Most weren’t very complimentary.
Six months later, having been sacked by his new employers for another breach of email etiquette, he came asking for his old job back.
The reply to which could have come straight out of one of his own messages.
The other potential social danger with emails is how quickly and easily they can be forwarded by an outraged (or amused) recipient.
One national newspaper columnist is probably best known in the business for the blisteringly rude messages he fires off to any sub-editor who dares to improve his carefully crafted prose by altering a word or comma.
Which wouldn’t be quite so funny if his original work was even half as brilliant as he clearly thinks it is – or as his late lamented father’s often was.
I shall never be able to read his purplish prose again without thinking how I might improve the flow of his words. Or what four-letter blast it might occasion if I were to do so.

TWO shocking news stories:
• A survey reports that a third of teenage girls in Britain suffer sexual abuse and a quarter are violently assaulted by boyfriends.
• Britain has the worst rate of teenage drunkenness in “the industrial world”, particularly among girls.
Setting aside all doubts about the accuracy, or objectivity, of the first survey, could these two things be in any way related?

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