There are two major problems with electronic mail – the hours we waste reading all the useless bloody emails we receive every day, and finding enough time to write the highly important ones that we ourselves need to send.
Most emails are very dull, but we feel we have to read them. I try to make the task a little more enjoyable by spotting the Freudian slips they contain. Do you know your Freud? He theorised that there is no such thing as a mistake, but every so-called ‘error’ is in fact a ‘revealing slip’.
One acquaintance of mine – a notorious bullshitter – boasts on his website that his company is “now the largest in our field”. But when he wrote me a similarly bragging email, his unconscious couldn’t help but type the truth – that his company is “not the largest in our field”.
A few quick points to consider for anyone who thinks this could be a random typo and not a Freudian slip.
1. ‘W’ is not next to ‘T’ on the keyboard. 2. This was the only typo in his email. 3. Bit of a coincidence that a random typo was so revealing.
Freudian slips seem especially common in the emails that ad agency heads of department send out when someone is leaving, presumably because of the gap between what they really think of that person and what politeness requires them to say.
My favourite ‘leaving email’ was about a PA who had been “very busty on her accounts this year”. And I once saw a shitty task described as a “poortunity”. When an ad went wrong and didn’t run, the client wrote a stroppy note to our team and I think they meant to put “use” but it came out as “regrettably, we will not be able to sue this”.
I also love passive-aggressive emails. And the semiotics of the ‘joke’ emails. And the subtle ways people communicate their place in the hierarchy by their use of layout, grammar and punctuation. (People who want you to think they are busy will use ‘rushed’ grammar, which is actually no quicker to write than proper grammar. And bosses do love to have “sent from my Blackberry” at the bottom of all their emails.)
Is it theoretically possible to live entirely without email? Of course it is. As an experiment, I once deleted every single email without reading it for 48 hours. And nothing bad happened.
But the temptation to read our emails – virtually as soon as they are received – is undeniable. A recent piece of research claimed that, on average, people wait only one minute and 44 seconds before acting on a new email. Moreover, two-thirds of alerts got a reaction within six seconds.
And the biggest problem of all is that when you go back to what you were doing, you’ve lost your train of thought. Another study revealed that it takes an average 64 seconds to return to your previous task after interruption by email. This means that people who check their email every five minutes could potentially be wasting an entire working day – 8.5 hours a week – trying to remember what they were doing before they dealt with that last email.
I’d argue that we creatives – since we have a job that requires long periods of uninterrupted concentration – are likely to be more hurt than most by this phenomenon, whereas people in jobs for whom constant emails are integral to their work might not have the same problem.
The best solution is to simply check your emails no more frequently than once an hour – you can even adjust your mailbox settings so they are only collected once an hour.
But what about when you have to write them? The dangers here are well-known. When you are speaking you can use your tone-of-voice to indicate humour, in an email you can’t. I have had people ring me up following an email I have sent, unsure whether I was joking, or angry. The truth is that for influencing people, nothing beats talking. However, if you need to communicate with several people at once, nothing beats email.
And composing them can be a huge time-suck. So when you do send an email, make it a short one. There’s a website called two.sentenc.es which advises treating emails like SMS text messages, ie using 160 characters or less. Since it’s too hard to count letters, you count sentences instead, and 160 characters comes out at roughly two sentences. Neat idea. After all, any piece of writing on the subject of advertising that is longer than two sentences is probably mostly waffle.
‘James McNulty’ is a leading agency creative