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E-mail and language

Posted by Robin Abrahams  February 18, 2008 04:28 PM

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Discovered a good new blog recently called "Surviving the Workday" that covers issues of spirituality in the workplace. Not in some fundamentalist "convert your co-workers" or grody New-Age "let's burn a smudge stick to purify your new cubicle" way--the blog's author, "Ms. Theologian," describes its mission thus:

Spirituality is notoriously difficult to define. I’ve settled on a definition of spirituality as the integration of the whole person, meaning body, mind, and soul ...

The workplace is where you spend your day whether it’s caring for a child or aging parent at home in the country or work with numbers in a tall office building in the city (or anywhere in between). Tom Wayman, the Canadian work poet, said that, “Work is anything that we do that makes the world go round.” I think that’s right.

So spirituality in the workplace is the of integration of the whole person into your daily life.

Nice, eh? Anyway, today she's linked to a San Francisco Chronicle business-etiquette advice column in which a reader complains of an abrupt e-mail:

I received an e-mail that in its entirety said: "Be advised that your cubicle is now E-15," with the signature block of the administrator — no greeting and no cheery goodbye. Now, I understand the need to move people around, and E-15 is a bigger cube with a window view so I'm not complaining about the move. Am I right to be peeved by the tone of the message?

Yes, I think so (as do the columnist and Ms. Theologian). As Ms. T. points out, it's just such a very weird way of communicating. You'd never say something like that to someone's face. There's a line to be walked in business communication--especially in e-mail, a medium for which protocols have yet to be developed--between the stilted and dehumanizing and the inappropriately chummy. But it's not a dangerously thin line--more like a nice low balance beam than a high wire. Would it have killed the writer of the above e-mail to have addressed the recipient by name, expressed some thanks for cooperation, or apology for the inconvenience, or congratulations on moving into the cushier E-15?

If you're worried about your own e-mail style, Send by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe is the book you need. I got a reviewer's copy shortly before it came out, and thought, "How much can there really be to say about this?" Then one night I ran out of things to read and picked it up, and discovered it was delightful and really got at the oddities of that particular communication medium, like the counterintuitive way that "please" in an e-mail can sometimes make a request sound MORE commanding and condescending, not less.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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