In his book, In Praise of Slow, Carl Honoré suggests that many of the technologies that are designed to be metaphorical knives that we can use to slice valuable time off of our daily business and household chores often turn out to be double-edged swords instead. Washing machines are one of his examples. He explains that when they first arrived, washing machines dramatically reduced the amount of hard and time-consuming clothes-scrubbing that housewives had to do (that was during an unenlightened, politically incorrect age when the laundry was primarily done by housewives), but because doing laundry became so much quicker and easier, hygiene habits soon changed. People started to wash their clothes much more frequently. The result, Honoré says, is that "the overflowing laundry basket is as much a feature of the modern household as the pile of bills on the front doormat."
In the same paragraph, Honoré gives a second example of a technology that is, to use his words, "a false friend." Would you like to guess what it is? I'll give you three guesses, and the first two don't count. Take your time. Feel free to pause before reading the answer in the sentence after the next. OK, your time is up. It's email. Honoré says, "On the plus side, it brings people together like never before. But ease of use has led to rampant overuse, with everyone clicking 'send' at the drop of a hat."
Here's the thing. Email is much, much, much too easy. Old-fashioned letter-writing takes time and effort. When that was the sole form of long-distance communication, people wrote only when they had something valuable or at least interesting to say. Even the telephone imposes some discipline. The need to dial, wait for someone to answer, then possibly deal with an answering machine or voice mail, and maybe pay long-distance charges, causes most people to pick up the phone only when they expect to receive sufficient value for doing so.
The same is not true of email. People treat it as if there is no cost whatsoever. Maybe there isn't a direct cost, but there certainly is a cost. Honoré would probably hate me for repeating this tired old cliché (if he had the foggiest idea who I was, which I'm sure he doesn't, or cared in the slightest what I said, which I'm even more certain he doesn't), but time is money. You spend time writing email (although, if you're like most people, you probably don't spend nearly as much time as you should). The person you sent it to spends time reading it--that's assuming that the recipient doesn't mistake it for spam and immediately delete it, as I often do. That's two people who have to expend some of the precious, finite amount of time that they have in their lives.
To make matters worse, there is something about the ease of sending emails that makes people sloppy about their writing. When people used to rely on hand-written or typed letters, they tended to be much more meticulous about their communications. They would first think about what they were going to say, then take some care when writing their letter, and finally, proofread it before they mailed it. That's not the case with email. The standard operating practice for most people seems to be this: vomit out some words and then immediately hit the Send button. The result frequently looks like, well, vomit. Consequently, the recipient must struggle to understand what the sender was trying to say.
Because email is so easy, people don't give a second thought to sending it. The solution to this problem seems so obvious that I don't understand why no one has thought of it before. We should make email much, much, much more difficult to use. I propose that the government pass a law requiring that all email clients be redesigned such that you will have to click at least 17 buttons, while simultaneously holding down the Ctrl, Alt, and Shift keys, just to send a single email to a single recipient. You will have to click more buttons if you want to send your email to more than one recipient. The number of buttons will grow exponentially with the number of recipients on the list. If you let go of the Ctrl, Alt, and Shift keys at any time during the 17 or more button sequence, the email client will force you to start again. That will make everyone stop and think before they send any email. I know that if I had to go through all of that effort just to send someone a message, I'd make damn certain that what I had to say was important.
Under my plan, automated email generation will be banned so that, thanks to the power of exponential growth, spammers will spend their entire lives just sending a single mailing to a very small audience.
Unfortunately, my plan would not cure all of the ills of email. It's not just the triviality and slapdash nature of most email that bothers me. It's also the expectation of speed that email engenders. Back when land-based snail mail was the primary means of communication, people would probably say things like, "I wrote him more than a month ago, and that impertinent twit still hasn't gotten back to me." With the telephone and voice mail, if your call isn't answered, you know that the person probably isn't in. The next day you might say, "I called her yesterday, and that impertinent twit still hasn't gotten back to me." Contrast that with email. People seem to assume that you are always sitting at your computer, just waiting to pounce on their email when it arrives. Now you hear, "I emailed that lousy, no good, *$*!%#*%$*, impertinent little twit five minutes ago, and he still hasn't gotten back to me." That's just email. Don't get me started on instant messaging.
Some of my aggravation is my own fault. I try to be polite. It's a part of my nature. It's also a practical requirement. If I'm not polite, they take away my Canadian citizenship. But it does cause some problems. I feel the need to answer every personal email that comes to me. Fortunately, I've learned to ignore spam without feeling excessively guilty about it. Otherwise, I wouldn't have time for working, eating, sleeping, or anything else. Nonetheless, I almost always respond to personal emails. If you've sent me an email and I didn't respond, then either I or my spam filter probably mistook it for spam and deleted it. I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry. It is an incredible affront, and there is no acceptable excuse for it. (Apologizing for absolutely everything, no matter how trivial, even when it isn't my fault in the slightest, is another thing I have to do to keep my Canadian citizenship.)
I don't ask much. All I ask is that you do two things before you hit the Send key. First, reread what you wrote and make sure it is really what you wanted to say and it is written in the way that you wanted to say it. Second, ask yourself if you would appreciate receiving the email yourself and, if the answer is "no," kindly move your cursor from Send over to Delete before clicking your mouse button.
Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at