Thursday, March 29, 2007

Interpreting Email

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.

2. Content.

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.

3. 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."


Stephen Blackmoore said...

Technology: Helping us make asses of ourselves at the speed of light.

My advice, don't worry about it. It's not worth it.

It's guaranteed that you're going to piss someone off at some point, just like someone's going to piss you off. If not through direct action then misunderstanding. Everything's going to get filtered through the recipient's point of view, expectations, past experiences and assorted emotional baggage. And you've got no control over any of that.

The only thing you can do is try your best to come across the way you want to. If they don't interpret it that way, there's not a goddamn thing you can do. You might be able to apologize (if it's warranted) or explain yourself better (if you care). A lot of the time you may not get the chance.

Overanalysis leads to insanity.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"Overanalysis leads to insanity."

Isn't that the truth! It can be enough to drive you mad.

I've decided in this case not to worry about it any more. I never meant any offense and if the person's upset it definitely boils down to their annoyance with other things in this scenario.

There comes a point where you also have to accept that if people are upset with you and they don't care enough to sort it out or tell you they're upset and give you a chance to apologize/explain... well, that tells you what they think of your 'relationship' as well.

There've been a few times I've been really hurt by someone and told them so in an email and they didn't write back. The message was loud and clear.

Someone did use 'Ms Ruttan' on me recently, and it's someone I've even met in person and I always sign off 'Sandra'. That really pissed me off.

Erik Ivan James said...

Great post, Samdra. I wonder how many people are now digging through their archives of emails?

The biggest problems with email, in my mind, are no body language or voice inflection. Sometimes, those two are the most critical to a conversation's intended meaning. Did I just make any sense?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh, yeah, you did J. The way a person says something can make all the difference!

JamesO said...

But you see now, Sandra, I'm just going to have to email you as Ms Ruttan on purpose. Because I know that it annoys you, and you know that I know, it suggests that I feel I also know you well enough to poke fun at you.

Either that or it just annoys you.

Oddly enough, I rarely pay any attention to how people address me in emails, or how they sign off. The only thing that's important to me is the message. But I agonise for ages over how to address and sign emails that I send. Is it too formal? Too informal? Do I really know them well enough, or will they think me overly familiar? I'm the same with letters, too.

It's a killer, and probably why I don't communicate much.

And then there's always the problem, when you get silence from another party, that the internet might have eaten your message...

angie said...

Yup. No point parsing every word, or it'll make you k-razy. Same with the reply or lack there-of, unless you know the person really well. Now that I think about it, I usually don't do any sort of greeting with emails to people that I know reasonably well. Sheer laziness & the fact that I figure they know who they are & I must, too, or I wouldn't be sending them a damn email. If it's someone I don't know, I guess I usually do the Hi Whoeverthehellyouare thing.

Sandra Ruttan said...

James, I just got an email with "Dear Ms Ruttan" in the subject.

It was addressed, "Look woman."

And it was signed off with "Hope you are well."


And all this time I thought you really wanted to be addressed as "Sir Benfro". We all call Stuart "Halfhead" behind his back...

Since I know the person I'm still laughing.

"I figure they know who they are & I must, too, or I wouldn't be sending them a damn email."

I love that Angie. And yeah, we're all usually pretty lazy with people we know really well.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh this is rich. The response I tried to send to that email? I got a message back from the ISP filter saying it had banned content in it.

I swear, nothing worse than 'sweetcheeks' was involved.

Maybe they banned Spanish?

Fuckin' Californians.

Sela Carsen said...

LOL! I just use first name if I know the person at all and I never use a sign-off like "XO" or "Hope you are well." Just me.

I try extra hard to give e-mail and net conversations the benefit of the doubt. Doesn't always work because sometimes, people are just mean and stupid. When I find mean, stupid people, I just delete them.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I am just fighting this urge to write you an email,

"My dear Sela..."

I only use my xo's where I know they'll be okay. And the symbol I've worked out for french kissing doesn't get used much at all...

Anonymous said...

I tend rightly or wrongly to be informal on emails. After 30 years in business I just figured "fuck it" and went with informal. I think I wrote Hi Sandra to you on my very first email even though we never met or corresponded before that (you were kind and gracious). I have been called on this a few times but WTF right. I sign "Best" because it has been the writer/journalist sign-off for years and I use "Regards" or "Sincerely" when it warrants it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't mind people approaching me casually... as long as it isn't tooo casual, if you know what I mean.

I'd never heard 'best' used by anyone until Val and for the longest time she was the only person. But then I noticed some people on her forum started signing things off 'best'. They were clearly copying her, so it drove me nuts. I know a lot of people use it, but I can't, I feel like I'm copying Val.

Stupid, eh?

It's the professional business emails that are really tough to sign off...

Christa M. Miller said...

I think I qualify as one of the people you don't know well. In any case, I always like hearing from you. No worries about bugging me. (That means: I am desperate for adult contact, PLEEEEEEEASE email! AGH!) ;)

The biggest thing email fails to impart is personality. You and I might hit it off great IRL. Or we might have a significant personality conflict. Neither of us has any way of knowing that until we meet. (Even handwritten letters are easier to "interpret" because handwriting does tell you something about personality, mood, etc.)

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Actually, the subject line was "Dear Ms Ruttin". A subtle but important distinction.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Funny Christa, I think of you as a friend! I just know you have your hands full!

Stephen, a subtle and important distinction would be how I address you, Mr. Blackwhore. Changes the whole meaning...

But at least you didn't say Rattan.

norby said...

I know I've already talked about my feelings about the lack of nonverbal communication cues when using email and other technological means of communication, so I won't bore anyone with that again.

How I address an email, and sign off, completely depends on who I'm writing to and how long it's been since I was in touch with them. And, sometimes, what I'm discussing.

I do tend to be fairly casual in an email, because for me email is not meant to be a serious means of communication. Maybe it's just because I've never had a job where I've had to rely on emails for work messages, but it's strange to think about using email as a format for business communication, although I know it's more common these days. Hell, I could even have a consultation with my doctor over email now if I wanted.

I like to think that I'm good enough with words that my sense of humor and my meaning always come across, but I've had enough misunderstandings to know that is not true, and it's frustrating because the communicator in me knows that if they could just see me, they would know my intent. Damn technology.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Time to get a webcam Norby!

Not for me though. (Shudder)

Christa M. Miller said...

Oh, cool. Thanks for that. I wasn't sure because I drop conversations all the time. I'd like to keep in better touch, though!

Sandra Ruttan said...

It's funny, because as James was saying he'd have to send me an email 'Dear Mrs. Ruttan' just to prove he was a good enough friend to be allowed to get away with the jab, it's been a day all about that.

It's actually been hilarious to see what people have come up with following this post. I still had to start the odd reply with 'Fuck you' just to keep up appearances though.

But as I said to someone else, if a person overfamiliarizes themselves with me and doesn't know me then it can be disastrous. You jokers might live after calling me Mrs. Ruttan once but if you call me Sandy you're dead.

Jersey Jack said...

I KNOW I'm the one that started this column! I KNOW it. To me, it's funny how you can meet and like someone even before knowing their name, but then when it's time to send them an email later, you don't know how to address them. I wanted to say, "Hey, Cutie!" but I figured that was way too informal. Then I tried "Sandra," but that seemed weird. I'd never used your name before. So I went with Ms. Ruttan, just to be safe, and now here I am another "Force of Evil." Where did I go wrong?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Dear Mr (should I reveal your real identity?)

Whereupon you first did choose to address this lady through written correspondence in what is currently known as e-mail, it was not wholly inappropriate to select a more formal manner inwhich to address me.

But when I sign off with my name it's okay to use it!

'Hey Cutie' would have been interesting. It certainly would have gotten my attention!

Yours truly,

Stephen Blackmoore said...

The best you can come up with is "Blackwhore"? And I thought you were a writer. I've gotten from 6th graders.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Not everything is printable Stephen!

norby said...

Hey jersey jack-to be a force of evil is a mark of honor my friend. Do not despair!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Norby's right. I'm so proud of my designation I put it in my blog description.

Jersey Jack said...

Maybe we should start a club. Get T-shirts and stuff. "The Forces of Evil"

To join, you have to really piss somebody off!

Anonymous said...

I've had so many misunderstandings with email-usually at work. At least though I could pick up the phone and talk to the person. When it's a virtual friend, that's when it gets tough.

My salutation is always Regards and I work up to Cheers and Love with good friends.

But you're right. It's a tough balance to strike and the ways to offend are numerous. I just write informally-but not too (I so get what you're saying there) and hope it works.

I've pissed off quite a few people when I've requested that they stop sending me stupid emails-chain emails, warning emails that turn out to be urban myths, cutesy emails-especially religious orientated. I figure it's my right to tell people what I do and don't want to receive, it's their right to get pissed off. We both get something out of it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well Jersey Jack, I guess Stephen gets a t shirt too.


Amra, having the ability to pick up the phone and sort it out must be nice! I don't blame you over the bulk email forwards. I just delete them, because sometimes something comes in I enjoy and a lot of people forward me jokes. But you have to wade through some bad for that stuff you like. C'est la vie.

Lisa Hunter said...

You're a writer. You give more thought to words than most people. I doubt that most emailers consider such nuances -- not when they also write "sentences" like "R U serious? LOL!"


Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Jeez. I think my greeting in that e-mail I sent you the other day was just something like "Hey."

I once recieved an e-mail in which I was addressed as "you fuckin [sic] asshole." The guy didn't like a letter I'd written to the local newspaper.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Lisa, I think everyone should be careful when writing a writer. Patrick, for example, thinks anyone using 'LOL' should die a slow, painful death.

I've pledged to use it on his blog more often. Maybe I'll get TWO 'Force of Evil' t-shirts!

Hey you fucking asshole

The email was cool. I know you. And you take the prize for the rudest way to be addressed in an email. LOL! (Yeah, that was on purpose! But you qualify for a t-shirt.)


Patrick Shawn Bagley said...


Make sure my shirt is 3X Tall, okay?

Actually, I misspelled that guy's misspelling. What he really wrote was "fucken asshole," not "fuckin asshole." Classic.