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The power of email
There is very little room for nuance and retractions

March 13, 2002
The Iranian

For a long time now I have been thinking of writing a piece about email etiquette. I am relatively new to the Internet. Always having been a talker, or what the French call bavarde and we call harraaf, I took an immediate liking to this new medium. Being one of the lost souls of the Iranian Diaspora with friends and relatives spread all over the world, I appreciated this new cheap way to keep in touch with all of them.

For a while I enjoyed this email honeymoon. Amazed at the power of the new medium to reach so many so quickly and easily. I also loved to write emails. Because they were half way between a conversation and a letter, they suited my talkative and impatient nature as well as my love of seeing my thoughts come down on paper and take form. An email can be carefully crafted and epistolary like a letter, but immediate and interactive like a conversation.

Of course it is also a great form of communication for the shy. It helps people open up. I had never been a shy type but I did find that I certainly sounded more assertive in emails. I first noticed this sharpness of pen if you will when I got into my first email squabble with an old friend. We had been college friends used to arguing into the late hours about everything and nothing.

But the nature of the new form caused us problems. We both, being very opinionated, sounded more adamant about our views in the emails than we would have in a conversation. The emails put our stances in black and white -- devoid of the use of facial expression or tonality of voice they allowed for very little gray.

Emails stubbornly refuse to allow you to pause and sigh or to change intonation and smile. They do not betray doubt that can be expressed in the tone of voice. They do not allow for eye contact to make your point. Email just presents your views in a no frills, no-nonsense way. As such it leaves very little room for maneuvering in a heated discussion. So statements in emails appear more enduring and therefore more stubborn.

There is very little room for nuance and retractions in emails. Trying to take back a spoken sentence is much easier than a sent email. So the email form of communication then is at once impulsive and quick to communicate but stubbornly permanent and obstinate as well.

Unlike a letter there is no time to digest an email. No time to tear it to pieces on the way to the mailbox. One quick click and that is it. My friend and I both very strong debaters no longer knew how to argue with each other in this new context. We were too harsh and truthful about one another to carry on that level of email exchange. So we had a spat, then made up and then stuck to the telephone in the future.

I gained much by writing emails. The email form of communication helped bring together my conversational tone and my pen. I learned that my email voice was much stronger than my written or spoken one because the quickness of the exchanges allowed for a flow that was not possible with many pauses and rewrites of a letter not to mention my awful handwriting that made everything seem unreadable. Being liberated from rewrites and bad handwriting helped the flow of my pen and my thoughts.

But soon again I found that the pitfalls of email writing are many. There is so much room for misunderstanding. Smiles, a look, a tone of voice, all reveal intentions that the email never can. So for the more single of the communicators while it is a great way for people to meet like minded people it is also incredibly dangerous.

You may spend many hours behind a computer fantasizing about the twentysomething blonde with whom you think you are exchanging deep feelings but he may turn out to be a 60-year-old grandfather. The possibility of people being what they are not is a permanent fixture of emailing those you have not met in person.

So off the bat my advice to those single friends out there communicating with would-be lovers is that you ask for a picture with a current dated newspaper immediately from the other person and provide one of yourself as well.

Now I know. I know. Many will be saying that it is the mental connection that counts, looks do not matter, etc. I say to them hogwash. Sexual attraction at least in an initial phase, is so intimately linked to the visual sense that you would be fooling yourself to go down the dangerously steep path of faceless cyber flirtations.

You meet someone you like and he likes you, ask for that picture. Like those of kidnapped victims with the current newspaper's date clearly visible. Then you can indeed decide if you can or want to continue to flirt -- whether or not good looks are there.

It is not so much that I think looks should matter but I think delusion should be avoided if the whole thing is not going to backfire. I do think that it is best to get over the question of how the other email address looks right off the bat lest you should be fantasizing about Penelope Cruz instead of Soghra Khanoom! Or Brad Pitt instead of Asghar Agha.

Of course this medium is great for us Cyranos of this world who write better than we look. To those fellow Cyranos I say you better not expect the email love affair you have started to move from the virtual to the actual. Because you will be headed for disappointment.

Of course the smart Cyranos, knowing the limits of their charm, do not even desire to venture out of their cyber facelessness. They are content to hide behind the anonymity of the medium and let their pen have all the fun as it were.

And of course there is hope that someone will like a Cyrano so much that they will not be shocked by his long nose and grotesque appearance. But then that means that at some point he should bite the bullet and send that picture come what may! Miracles do happen.

Now another problem that I have seen caused by email is that of sharing confidences. This is a good medium for gossip. You can stay in touch with many friends at the same time and keep up to date about their lives in much the same way as on a phone. Only a phone conversation -- unless it is in the White House or some such place -- is not usually recorded. An email is.

So whatever confidence is shared is also at once incriminating and therefore dangerous.This happened to me recently. Where a friend asked me to forward a message from another and I mistakenly sent it to the person who should not have received it. So if you are like me a confidante to many friends be careful and check the address before you click away. When you do read confidences immediately delete them. That is the safest way to keep them conversational rather than recorded.

A golden rule of email is that you should never share a communication you have had with one friend with other friends unless you have his/her unconditional accord. This may sound like a given but trsut me, it happens. So do not share people's emails with anyone else. It is not correct in any book. It is akin to having someone eavesdrop on your telephone conversation. It is unacceptable and dangerous.

Also should you share a computer with someone, you should never ever check their emails. It is criminal -- like opening a letter not addressed to you. But it is easy to leave this kind of spying traceless and is therefore easier to commit -- no steaming the flap of the letter needed, just a password.

So no matter how curious you are, if you want to keep your integrity stay away from other people's emails. They are private and more often than not they may hurt you. Let your friend or partner have his fantasy if you will. You can always step in if it oversteps the limit of virtual and becomes actual.

Now as to collective emailing, as in the so many list-serves created. If someone asks to be removed from your list then by all means you should accommodate them. If you don't, it is like keeping your guests hostage after a dinner party where they really just want to go home! If you really want to convince that person wishing to be removed of something then just contact them outside the list.

And unless you are a stalker, never, ever insist on communicating with someone who does not wish to communicate. Continuing to email someone who does not wish to receive your emails is like making love to a woman after she says no. It is boorish and unacceptable. It is like date rape. Something that does not stop where it reaches the limit of mutual agreement.

The Internet is a blessing for us Iranians who are spread around the globe and hungry for hamzabooni. But we should follow simple precepts to insure the smooth flow of good fellowship and avoid sinking into girl-room spats and disappointments -- not to mention major heartbreak.

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By Setareh Sabety

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