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HARDWARE

When E-Mail Bites

Inc.'s editor-at-large vents some steam over irritating e-mail practices like using emoticons.
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Nothing satisfies like E-mail when you're traveling. Until some bozo hits you with a one-word response or packs your mailbox full of )-:

I love E-mail: the immediacy of it, the efficiency, the portability, the instant gratification. A well-executed E-mail exchange gives me tingles, especially when I'm in the middle of nowhere -- an airport lounge, for example -- and can carry on with my work and communicate with my colleagues as if I were plugged into the network back in Boston instead of, say, held captive by a late-March blizzard in North Dakota. There's nothing more beautiful than a response from a coworker, as if I were only a cubicle away, thanking me for an attached file or piece of arcane minutiae that only I can be counted on to know off the top of my head.

But E-mail can also drive me nuts. Crazy nuts. To be sure, some of the offenses are technology driven. But most are people driven. And both play havoc with my productivity. Road warriors do not need the following baggage:

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People who reply to multiple questions with a one-word response. There's nothing worse than sending an E-mail message that asks two or three questions -- Should you book the $50,000 blotto for the all-important blotto-blotto affair? And can your colleague schedule a meeting with the in-house hungadunga committee? -- and getting back a one-word yes response. It's especially troubling when you're on the road and can download your E-mail just once or twice a day, usually early in the morning before anyone's in the office or late at night when everyone's home in bed. Some of your colleagues probably use the single-response technique deliberately to drive you nuts. It works.

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E-mail responses that reiterate your entire message. I hate E-mail responses that come back to me along with my original message. First, longer messages take extra time to download. And then there's the time you spend sorting out the response from your query. Besides, do you want to see the words you wrote late at night or early in the morning thrust back in your face? Of course not. You want answers -- preferably ones that are clear and concise, with a touch of insouciance thrown in to keep things interesting. Instead of returning entire messages with their responses, why don't your correspondents cut and paste appropriate excerpts with their answers? Because they too want to drive you nuts.

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Geographical notations. I don't care where you're E-mailing me from, no matter how exotic the place may be. It's one thing to tell me that you'll be late for a meeting because you are stuck at LaGuardia Airport, or that you'll be unable to get your report in because you've been taken captive by a group of tourists in Belize. But why tell me you're in an airplane over Denver, a taxicab in London, a rowboat off a Greek island, or in the middle of an airfield someplace waiting for your private jet to arrive? Letting me know you're E-mailing me from the bathroom in your suite at the Hay-Adams Hotel is just more information than I want to have. There's something here that's akin to the need people have to yell into telephones in airplanes. "Guess where I'm calling you from?" Who cares? Now if Alexander Graham Bell had felt it necessary to tell people he was calling from his office or his sitting room, that would have been understandable. But you and I are no Alexander Graham Bells. And the nuisance is only magnified by those people who need to tell you where they are but apparently feel no need to include any shred of useful information in their message. Make them stop. Make them stop now.

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Emoticons. Keep them to yourself. In fact, let's just outlaw those little things. I don't care if you're )-: or (-: or even |-:. I don't want to know. Besides being too cute for words, those emoticon things eat away at your productivity by taking minutes to decipher. Even when you think you've figured them out, you're often not sure if writers are expressing sympathy, regrets, or a need for help with their spastic colons.

Airport lounge credit-card phones that don't work. Have you ever tried getting those credit-card phones in airport lounges to work when you need them? OK, so maybe they aren't all in airport lounges, but you know the scenario. You're stuck in Miami International Airport for two hours waiting for your flight. You're in one of those lounges that have really bad coffee and several couches with end tables and phones that are supposedly equipped to handle data as well as voice transmission.

Invariably those phones work when you've got only 15 minutes before a flight and almost no time to unpack and wire up your laptop. But when you've got two hours and can really get some work done, you can rest assured that you won't be able to dial up your office E-mail. Nothing you do is going to work. Your only solace is in knowing that you're not the only one failing at electronic gymnastics: all around you are grown men and women with phones in various states of disassembly as they try to find a way to transmit data. They will not succeed. Their efforts are doomed. Plugging into a cellular phone -- the kind equipped for laptops -- is the only solution. And needless to say, nobody's brought one along.

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E-mail server breakdowns.When E-mail servers at your office don't respond when you call in, you can kiss communications good-bye. The nature of the breakdown depends on the kind of E-mail system you're on, but we've all experienced it in one form or another. Perhaps the phone lines are down at the office, and all you get is a busy signal when you dial in for messages. Perhaps the modem that answers the phone actually answers but then fails to route your call (and won't route it until the modem is reset). Perhaps the phone rings and rings and rings because the primary modem is down and the backup modem is failing to respond as well. Perhaps the computer server itself -- the one that manages your company's system -- has gone awry.

Problems happen. Backups fail. When it's the middle of the night and you're hungry for your E-mail, there's not much you can do. The only solution is to ask the system operator, better known as your "sysop," to check the server when he or she gets in the next morning. But herein lies another challenge: if you can't dial into the E-mail server, how can you contact the sysop? One solution is to leave a voice-mail message. (Remember telephones?) Another is to have a subscription to one of the commercial on-line services or an Internet account so that you can E-mail your sysop from that address.

I've been really lucky on the many occasions that I've been E-mail deprived. Our sysop, Rob, seems to keep an apartment near the office for the sole purpose of answering my late-night cries for help. No backup system around can replace a Rob. If you don't have a Rob to fix your E-mail server when it's down, consider hiring one. Consider putting the E-mail server in his apartment, next to his bed preferably, so that he'll know immediately when things go wrong. But please don't hire away our Rob. It takes years to break in a Rob, to get him just so. Leave our Rob alone, and find your own.

That's it. Just six simple problems. But wouldn't the world (at least my E-mail world) be a much better and, dare I say, more productive place if we could eradicate those six affronts to E-mail integrity? You don't agree? You think that behavior that sets E-mail etiquette back hundreds of thousands of bytes is good? Fine. There's a lovely airport lounge in Miami I'd like you to visit.

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Jeffrey L. Seglin (jeff_seglin@incmag.com) is an editor at large at Inc. Go ahead. Try E-mailing him without feeling too self-conscious.




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