A surprisingly large crowd showed up at my evening course last week on how to write correct business e-mails in English. As I looked out at the many faces expectantly looking back at me, I tried to remember back to when we all first starting this mode of written communication. Tried but failed to date when I had first started opening and checking my inbox, as it seems now that e-mails have been around forever. How did we ever manage to get along in the business world without them before? Are we better off now because of their firmly entrenched place in our working lives?
As this was no time to stand around in front of a roomful of people wondering about questions that had no practical value to them, I got on with the course and threw out the idea that e-mails are the new way for companies to project their image, therefore the need for my students to write every e-mail sent out to their recipients with as much clear information and correct grammar/spelling/punctuation as possible. They discussed this idea for a few minutes together, and gave an indication afterwards that they agreed quite strongly with this statement.
We then talked about how there is a fine line between writing an e-mail that is just the right length, and just what is that length? At that point I recalled my former university English teacher who likened a good essay with a good miniskirt (admittedly, this was several years ago when such comparisons made in the public arena of a university classroom did not incite a whole lot of protest, digital or otherwise) and who said, “It must be long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be of interest” (general laughter).
Because as we e-mail recipients are becoming more and more flooded with digital messages, our tolerance regarding their length is becoming more strained. Hours of gazing at the screen every day at work takes its toll on the reader’s eyesight, posture and patience level, resulting in a weariness when confronted with too many words in an e-mail that seems to go on and on with no particular point in mind. Some readers even skim over large chunks of writing without being aware that they’re doing so, perhaps in the process not getting at the heart of the writer’s message, as they finish reading as quickly as possible because of their inner need to move on and click the next unopened mail in their inbox.
But then came the interesting part – while they initially agreed that e-mails in general are often much longer than they need to be, when doing an exercise designed to get them to prioritize the points they wanted to make in their own writing, many people found this difficult to do. Why is it so hard to edit your writing, I asked them. Well, they replied, it’s because everything I have to say/write is not only very important, but equally important. They found it very hard to cut any content when preparing their e-mail package for sending off, preferring to include everything so as not to feel insecure about having left something important out. The ‘better safe than sorry’ approach to communication?
We got to the bottom of it after discussing this need for a longer time than I would have thought necessary before starting class, but what came out was that it was this very feeling of slight (and in some cases great) insecurity about writing in a foreign language that was the reason for their need to put everything out there, so to speak, in writing. Because when we write in a language that is not our own, we have an even greater need to be understood, a greater need to be respected and regarded as being someone intelligent with something intelligent to say – or in this case, write. So my students were overcompensating for the fact that they did not feel they had a sufficiently well-developed English vocabulary or knowledge of its grammar, etc., which in turn left them starting out at a disadvantage in the business e-mail world. And it took quite a bit of convincing for them to agree that they didn’t have to prove anything to their recipient by flooding them with words in the hope that somewhere in the middle of all their long paragraphs, their message would get across. Rather, a ‘less is more’ approach would not only work just fine for this purpose but would also lighten their mental load when knowing that a brief, well-written e-mail would be more than enough to get the job done. At the end of class, they seemed to be convinced that this was the way to go in their e-mail writing future.
It’s interesting to find out what goes on in people’s minds, and in this case I learned about one aspect of an everyday activity in the global workplace that I hadn’t thought of before, but will take with me in the future. Hopefully, remembering their comments will improve my teaching with regard to helping foreign speakers of English write e-mails that they can send off with confidence – and a touch of pride about what is after all their own creative expression when communicating with others in the international working language that English has become.