I may regret doing this. Undoubtedly someone will read this and think I’m talking about them.
“Is it my last email she’s going on about?”
“How did I sign off the last one I sent her?”
“Geez, I didn’t want her to know I was pissed off…”
Sometimes I hate writing emails, because I certainly know how my mind works when I get them. And there have been a number of times when I have conveyed the wrong… sentiment or impression because of a poor choice of words.
Or, in some cases, because the person getting the email is quite sensitive. Or because I misunderstood their email. Who knew something meant to be so convenient could be such a headache?
I have a stack of emails here I’ve been meaning to reply to. Sometimes, with good friends I exchange longer emails with, I save them up and then write the equivalent of a letter, so I don’t tend to respond quickly. I have some emails that relate to a panel I’m doing, and I didn’t want to rush those off, I wanted to check out all the books involved. So those take time.
Then there are the other ones, ones I’m still hmmming over. People I genuinely like, but I’m not sure if by continuing to write back I’m pestering them. Just don’t know them well enough. Or bizarre-out-of-the-blue-I-don’t-know-you-weird emails that I’m still trying to figure out.
Fortunately, those are few and far between.
I was having a recent email discussion with author Carol Anne Davis about how people read things into books that aren’t necessarily there. I do think based on our own experiences, things that are on our minds, we can sometimes heighten the significance of something in a story or interpret more into it because of things in our own life. Laura Lippman’s TO THE POWER OF THREE is a good example for me, because I partially severed my foot, and so all the stuff about learning how to walk again nearly sent me over the edge. I kept wondering if Josie realized her life – as in, the ability to do many of the things she was great at – was over? Almost 27 years later and the muscles in my foot still cramp with agonizing pain from time to time.
In the same way we do this with books, we do this with emails. But with email I think it’s even worse. There are so many obvious things to consider.
1. How the email is addressed.
Sandra. Hi Sandra. Dear Sandra. My dear Sandra. S. Sam. Look woman. Mrs. Ruttan. Ms. Ruttan. Dear Ms. Ruttan.
Yep, every single one of those tells me something right off and sets a different tone for the email. Anyone who calls me Mrs. Ruttan doesn’t know me. Anyone who calls me Ms. Ruttan either a) doesn’t know me, or b) is deliberately trying to piss me off. (This is an example of when how this element is interpreted is contingent on other variables, as in sender and purpose of message.)
“Look woman” is rich. I got an email from someone I didn’t know once that started that way. The reason was, they’d emailed me (and they had a reason for having my address) and asked me for some information. I’d emailed back and when they replied to that their response started, “Look woman.” Yeah, it wasn’t the nicest exchange I’ve ever had, but there were legal variables involved and I didn’t feel comfortable supplying the information to someone I didn’t know. Guess they didn’t like that answer, and this was a case where you didn’t have to read past those first two words to know what the email would be like.
My closest friends use Hi Sandra, S or Sam. People who don’t know me but are trying to be polite are probably going with Dear Sandra. See, first few words and it tells me a lot.
Yeah, this shouldn’t be a newsflash. Length might be relevant. Might not be. But things like whether the person imparts any information about themselves or strictly sticks to business is very telling. If they share personal details they probably consider you a friend. If they don’t, well, you figure it out.
The shortest emails I get are usually from my closest friends, in a way. They’re the people I’ll one-off with half the night. In those cases the emails are more like an ongoing conversations. Salutations are dispensed with, as are signatures.
These are my favourite things to interpret. Or maybe least favourite. I find these to be the most subjective thing in the average email, and I hate choosing one.
So, I usually sign off my emails with ‘XO, S’ or just ‘S’. Or ‘Cheers’. Because it’s a casual ‘so long’ or in the case of ‘XO, S’ it’s with affection.
‘Best’ is…ambiguous, at best, unless it comes from Val McDermid. To me, that’s Val McDermid’s signature and she owns it. If I used it I would feel like I was copying her.
‘Regards’ is... Polite friendly.
‘All the best’ is… ‘We aren’t close but I wish you well’. Or ‘Fuck off’. Or ‘I wish you well but thus ends our correspondence.’ Definitely a case where context matters. Could also be ‘We aren’t close but I’d like to be friends’. Hmmm. Tough one.
‘Hope you’re well’ can be:
a) ‘Really hope you’re well but don’t want to know if you aren’t.’
b) One persons way of saying they don’t know what’s going on with you and, they either don’t want to or want to but not right now.
c) They haven’t got a clue how else to sign off.
‘Take care’ is a fun one. Could be genuine sentiment. A way of saying, ‘See you around, take care of yourself’ to someone you don’t know well. Could also be that you have some reason to be concerned about a friend and you’re saying, ‘Take care of yourself, I care about you!’
I do get emails from good friends that sign off this way. I just got one from Jayne this morning. Again, a situation where context is everything.
Really, it’s the people I don’t know well who throw me for a loop. There just seem to be so many times I get an email and find myself thinking, What the hell does that mean? but I don’t want to cite example from private correspondence.
And then, there are the people who don’t write you back. I don’t write back if
a) it was spam (duh)
b) the person is annoying the hell out of me
c) my interpretation of their email leads me to conclude they would rather be soaked in honey and locked in a barn with a thousand bees than hear from me
d) I’m upset by something in their email
I suppose there could be other reasons, just as there may be plenty of other interpretations for stuff in emails. And I’m sure that I’ll get some emails this morning, from people who try to explain their emails or wonder if I’m talking about them.
Or people will just stop writing to me…
The reality is, we all know our choice of words is partly based on how comfortable we feel with someone, and how you phrase an email will convey that. If I seem to wing emails off casually to a person it’s likely because I feel comfortable with them – I trust that if there’s a misunderstanding we’ll sort it out. It’s when I don’t know people well that emails become a far more arduous task.
I’ve been thinking about this because I think I really pissed someone off with an email… this year. (See, how’s that for generic? Three months worth of emails – what are the odds it’s one I sent to YOU? Not good, so stop worrying.) And I have no way of knowing, unless they tell me, respond to me, or I follow this up with an apologetic email.
But what if I still get no response?
And then it might be a million other things going on that have kept them from writing back.
See, interpreting emails sucks. It isn’t just what you put into one that will matter – it can matter as much or more if you don’t respond. In the same way that we lose the nuances of communication – the twinkle in the eye, the wrinkling of the nose, the tug at the corners of the mouth – on forums and lists and blogs, we lose all of that in email.
I hope someone has some funny ‘misunderstanding’ stories to share or alternate interpretations for signatures and stuff. I could use a good laugh.
Cute (From Norby)
One summer evening during a violent thunderstorm a mother was tucking her son into bed. She was about to turn off the light when he asked with a tremor in his voice, "Mummy, will you sleep with me tonight?"
The mother smiled and gave him a reassuring hug.
"I can't dear," she said. "I have to sleep in Daddy's room."
A long silence was broken at last by his shaky little voice: "The big sissy."