Emails, letters, books and authors

Last week I concluded that e-mails would stay with us, and possibly for a very long time. I had shared with you my experience and views on e-mails in these letters before and I had said every now and then that I would discuss aspects of this mode of communication. Club presidents and members had complained at times they were receiving too many unsolicited emails including ones that are not Rotary related and even when they were, were only of marginal interest to them if at all; others had questioned whether the district email system should be used for circulating non-Rotary matters even though the subjects related to socially important Rotarians of the District; some club presidents and district officials had questioned whether they could opt out of the district email system; still others questioned the bona fide of perpetrators of messages from Nigeria claiming to be Rotarians and offering a boon to The Rotary Foundation; and there were many other permutations and combinations. And we have not even begun to mention the virus-infested emails.

Our District is blessed in having a generous, knowledgeable, competent and efficient Webmaster in the name of Bill Benter. He took up the appointment of Chairman, District Electronic Communications Committee around June 1999 and has since been serving the District well, indeed more than well. He has often said that he is the District Website Policeman and largely through persuasion and education, has instituted a form of discipline in clubs and members and has struck a fine balance between the right of the individual to privacy and the desire for information. Bill Benter has preached in person at club meetings and on the Internet email protocol and has posted prominently on the District Website the RI Guidelines for the use of email.

At the end of the day, one has to rely on common sense to interpret any guidelines. The emails from the self proclaimed Rotarians from Nigeria for example could be quickly disposed of unless you are concerned with Financial Affairs Task Force (FATF) which is an inter-governmental network against money laundering. Many emails can be safely deleted and forgotten in similar fashion unless one has a special interest in the subject matters concerned. One source estimates that the average executive is exposed to at least 1000 advertising messages a day and about 200 messages, including 50 phone calls, 40 emails, 20 internal memos and 20 items of external mail. The busy executive would probably receive more emails, say, 200 a day. I estimate that I receive about 100, 70 of which are work related messages, of which only about 15 would require personal and immediate action. I try to clear my inbox first thing in the morning before I receive the first phone call, and I achieve this by starting the day earlier, particularly on Mondays.

When I was District Governor, I received more personal emails. It was not unusual that I had to deal with 150 emails on weekends. I tried to deal with all of them before I went to bed. Invariably, I made mistakes in the process. I am talking not only the typo, of which there were quite a few, but more importantly to the unintended and unnecessary harsh words and nuances in some replies sent out in haste, without sufficient regard to the sensitivity and the self-imposed importance of the recipients. I had a few regrets at leisure as a result. These were all lessons in life that I might discuss in greater details one of these days. I was therefore particularly struck when I read an article on digital decorum recently.

This brings me to email protocol. I think just as each of us would decide whether he would say Good Morning or Hello to everyone he meets each morning or when and how, each email user must decide for himself what to do if he is serious about using email as a medium of communication, and the sooner the better. For me, of the common ten commandments, the more important three ones are – first, reply as soon as possible; second, think and proofread before pressing send; and third, be polite and nice.

I have been thinking why some of my best friends hate emails and the Internet. One in fact said she would only read those long passages of gibberish because they were from me. Naturally, I felt happy, but I wonder why she felt that emails were monstrous. I think the reasons would be no different from those associated with changes or fears, specifically, fear of changes and fear of the unknown. A good friend’s daughter whom we have known since birth has a severe case of dentophobia (fear of dentists). She would cry her way to and from the dentist who is a good family friend, and she was about 20 when she had to have a rather complex oral surgery. She could not get herself onto the chair until an auntie talked to her quietly alone. The auntie suggested she might die of suffocation if she cried while during the operation. The fear of dying involuntarily and prematurely overtook dentophobia. She stopped crying, walked up to the dentist and had her operation. Not only that, she cured herself of dentophobia. I wonder what can be done to cure ligyrophobia (fear of cockroaches).

Still on the fear or rather dislike of emails, I think it might have to do with the fear of whether the message would go through to or be received by the other side. Actually, the biggest advantage of emails is that an email would reach its destination much faster than traditional mail or fax. One can send a message to someone in another country and receive a reply within minutes. The only delay is in how long it takes the recipient to check his or her inbox and to respond. I think this is no different from the anxiety we had in the days we sent letters by post. Has he or she received the letter and when? Why does it take him or her so long to reply? What if the post office loses my letter? What if I put on the wrong address? In all those cases, we had someone to blame for, someone we can imagine or envisage. In the case of emails, we rely on technology. To someone not too familiar with technology, the leap forward may be too much.

Someone has said that emails have the potential to re-create the joys of letter writing. Those of us who used to write letters and who are more systematic would recall that letters were normally kept in boxes or box files, to be dumped in bulk during house moving or spring cleaning, and depending on the relation status of the writers of the letters at the time we need to take such decisions. E-mails are generally filed and stored differently. Most would be sitting on a hard disk, waiting to be discovered, which is a motivation for writing our emails more carefully.

I have an eight-year old computer sitting in a corner of the bedroom. It is a 486 and not Y2K compatible, but it has in the hard disk all my letters and emails for a rather long period, from 1993 to 2000. Indeed, I was looking for the letters I wrote to young Stephanie in the first weeks she was in Irvine. They were still there. The first letters were typed in small fonts, laser printed and faxed to her home. The subjects discussed were wide ranging. I derived untold pleasure reading some of them. Stephanie said she had a folder back in the United States with those prototype letters. Once again, I might discuss this part of my life later.

Stephanie has a very good friend one year senior to her. I met him when I went over for her graduation or Commencement in May this year. When Stephanie began her journey home through Tokyo some two weeks ago, she asked her friend to email us her Tokyo contacts because she was already on her way. He dutifully did so and more. He began writing me emails in which he discussed various aspects of life, beginning with books and authors. These are good stuff, and he writes well. He had read my book, Letters from a Rotarian, and was impressed by what Rotarians could do, and I have put him on my circulation list. He has agreed that I can discuss and respond to his thoughts in my open letters, which I would do later, and I thank the young man for that.

Talk to you again next week.

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