Thursday, November 30, 2006

Email Tips

Email has become one of the most common means for me to communicate these days. (I might have said cell phone in the past but I have this new Bluetooth that is causing me problems!!Is there a dentist for a Bluetooth problem?) However, email is one of the worst ways to communicate as well as it seems to always get misinterpreted. Even when you use a smiley face :-) or a frowny face :-( or a confused face :-s the emotion can be lost or mistranslated.

Email, and it's cousin instant messaging, have also led to a brand new dictionary of "words" - things like LOL, POP, and CYA that somehow work themselves into student writing. I recently led a scoring training where I asked teachers to list their "pet peeve" in student writing before we scored any test papers so that they would not get distracted when those pet peeves appeared. You would be amazed at the elementary teachers who had IM codes on their list!!!

Via Lifehacker, I came across "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War." Tom Wheeler, the author, has a great post there on the lessons of Mr. Lincoln and how we could use them in our own electronic communication. Here are the highlights:

  • Hierarchy of Communications : Electronic messages were Lincoln's least preferred means of communicating. First on his hierarchy were direct, in person exchanges...I have become more aware that emails are not a substitute for walking down the hall or picking up the phone
  • Words are Important - When he used an electronic message Lincoln maximized its impact by using carefully chosen words. His August 1864 telegram to General Grant, "Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke" could not have been more explicitly expressed. Emails, on the other hand, have tended to become the communications equivalent of casual Fridays, substituting comfort and ease for discipline and rigor.
  • Less is More - Whereas many saw the blank telegraph form as an invitation to an essay, Lincoln's telegrams were short and to the point. "Your long despatch of yesterday just received," Lincoln chided General George McClellan about a 10-page telegram sent in May 1863. Then the president required only three additional sentences to reply to the general's endless essay.
  • Message Candor - Honest Abe was frank and direct in his communications. "If you and he would use the same frankness to one another, and to me, that I use to both of you, there would be no difficulty," Lincoln wrote General Joseph Hooker in June 1863 regarding the ongoing feud between Hooker and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck.
  • Take a Breath - If frankness and candor are a virtue, they also require judicious application in electronic messages. Just because it is possible to instantaneously send a message doesn't mean it is appropriate to do so...Responding to a September 1863 telegram from General Ambrose Burnside, Lincoln wrote in a reply telegram, "it makes me doubt whether I am awake or dreaming. I have been struggling for ten get you to go assist Gen. Rosecrans...and yet you steadily move the other way." After fully venting his frustrations Lincoln turned the page over and wrote, "Not sent." Hitting the "Send" button on an email is an easy, but irreparable, action.
  • Reading Other People's Mail - Abraham Lincoln's habit was to walk into the War Department telegraph office, open the drawer containing copies of all the telegrams received, and read them all, regardless of to whom they were addressed. Through this procedure Lincoln had a keyhole into the thinking of his generals and activities in the field. The "cc" and "Reply All" function of email provides a similar opportunity for us to stay informed.
  • The Value of a Hand-Written Note - Lincoln's appreciation of the telegraph was because of its ability to instantaneously communicate over great distances. Where a face-to-face meeting was not possible he preferred a well thought out letter. In such letters he would cogently lay out his thoughts as well as respond to issues he imaged the recipient would raise. Something handwritten is also more physically and emotionally powerful than an impersonal message over the wires. When for instance, Lincoln congratulated General Grant for his Vicksburg victory in July 1863 his statement, "I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong" was made all the more significant by coming direct from the president's hand.
Because email is so commonly used, I think that we have an obligation to teach our students (and colleagues) how to use it appropriately. This site has some other great examples that are worth checking out.

IMHO, good old Abe still has a great deal to teach us! :-)


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