They call me MISTER Webb!

We love our e-mail.

According to a recent AOL/RoperASW survey, Canadians check their e-mail more often than they brush their teeth (which, hopefully, says more about our e-mail habits than our hygiene). For a million bucks, half of us would live without other human contact than e-mail for a year, which probably says something about our neighbours.

It’s fast, it’s convenient, it’s becoming the ubiquitous. It has changed the lives of everyone exposed to it, mostly for the better. But the medium has changed an important aspect of the way we do business, certainly for the worse.

(And no, I’m not going to bang on and on about spam like I usually do. I will note, though, that software that allows me to copy DVDs has leapt to the top of my spam list, whizzing by offers of porn, online Viagra substitutes and products to enhance my, um, manliness.)

E-mail has eroded professionalism in business communication. It’s certainly enhanced our capacity to flirt, gossip, solicit, harass and generally keep in touch. But business correspondence just isn’t the same.

Perhaps it’s the immediacy of the medium, since closeness in time can be mistaken for closeness in space. Perhaps it’s the fact that more line-of-business types are handling their own correspondence, rather than letting the pros in the steno pool handle it. Whatever. E-mail correspondence is devoid of professional courtesy.

Every office used to have a Guardian of Professional Correspondence. This person, for some reason usually called Nancy, would carve in stone page format, methods of address, greetings, tone and sign-off. At my former place of employment, this was the role of a woman named (naturally) Nancy. ALL correspondence crossed her desk for review. ALL correspondence went back for correction with searing commentary in the margins. We meekly obeyed. After all, this was supposed to be professional correspondence.

It’s the faux camaraderie of e-mail that irks me most. I’m not the most formal person in the world. But in professional correspondence with people I have never met or had contact with, I yearn for the common courtesy of being addressed as Mr. Webb – at least the first time. Everyone leaps immediately to Dave without having been invited to. (You, Dear Reader, can call me Dave – Mr. Webb is my father.)

There’s also a phony chumminess to the tone of much “professional” correspondence: Boy, I can’t wait for the long weekend, I really need it, got any plans? How’s the family? From an acquaintance – even of the most casual, only-by-e-mail-a-couple-times variety – that’s fine. From a total stranger prospecting for business, civil and polite is the order of the day. Insincere buddy-buddy chat isn’t.

If Nancy has an e-mail account, it must be driving her nuts.

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