The power of email
There is very little room for nuance and retractions
March 13, 2002
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.