Say it with e-mail

The first e-mail was fairly short, less than 200 words. The subject line read, “”I’m not interested in corporate welfare bum stories.””

I’m not particularly interested in them either, and I didn’t think had published any, but apparently someone out there did. He sounded upset–

CEOs and dot-com millionaires made him “”puke,”” he said — and suggested that one day history would show that some people in the industry had, in his words, “”nearly destroyed our planet.””

As I’ve mentioned before, we love getting feedback on stories, but recent research indicates those writing in benefit as well. Late last month the University of Texas published the results of what may be the first study to examine the psychological and health-related effects of sending e-mail. It’s pretty good news: students in the study that wrote about their feelings and sent e-mails reported being sick for significantly fewer days than those who did not, and told researchers they were less likely to miss class. The psychologists concluded that writing these messages fosters greater self-clarity and stops people from internalizing stress.

In this case, the message I had received also included a few four-letter words — mild ones by today’s standards, but not really appropriate business language all the same. I wrote back to the reader asking him if he was referring to a specific article from our site, explaining that while I was interested in his opinions I could not publish anything in our Letters to the Editor section that included cursing.

I got back 1,735 words. In key places, words within sentences had been put in boldface text, while others were written in all capital letters, like a shout. The substance of the message is not the issue here — it concerned, among other things, how technology can replace people and how major corporations sometimes heartlessly get rid of valuable employees for the sake of the bottom line — it was its presentation. The author of this message wasn’t angry at me; he was just angry, perhaps with good reason. This message was something he needed to get off his chest, but his language and use of fonts demonstrated that he was as interested in channeling his emotions as he was communicating his message.

This era of e-mail as cathartic tool creates a challenge in the enterprise. Already, some organizations in Germany are severely restricting their employee’s access to the Internet and e-mail, in some cases relegating their Web-equipped PCs to isolated terminals somewhere in the office. This is supposed to curb some of the time wasted on forwarding jokes to your friends and eliminating the distraction of incoming messages. This concept could flourish in corporate North America, where productivity is the new efficiency.

At this point, though, the floodgates have been thrown open. We’ve all worked in offices where some deeply unhappy person seems to spend hours at their desk, punching out bitter missives to friends or co-workers about the latest crisis. If these stressed-out knowledge workers no longer have e-mail to turn to, where will they let it all out? As with any attempt to regulate Internet use, there appears to be a dearth of useful data that properly evaluates the good and bad impact of e-mail (and this University of Texas study is at best a meager start). I have always thought that e-mail poses dangers precisely because of its speed and efficiency — it’s too easy to dash off a message instead of taking the time to compose a proper letter. Without discrediting the value of emotional expression, irresponsible use of such correspondence will almost certainly lead some firms to clamp down on who gets to push the “”send”” button.

I’m not sure if there’s a solution to this problem, but I’m open to suggestions. I just ask that they be reasonably brief. And leave out the cussing.

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