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When e-mail becomes e-nough

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The first person I came across who'd got the measure of e-mail was an American friend who was high up in a big corporation. Some years ago, when this method of communication first seeped into business life from academia, his company in New York and its satellites across the globe were among the first to get it. In the world's great seats of learning, e-mail had for some years allowed researchers to share vital new jokes. And if there was cutting-edge wit to be had, there was no way my friend's corporation would be without it.

One evening in New York, he was late for a drink we'd arranged. 'Sorry,' he said, 'I've been away and had to deal with 998 e-mails in my queue.' 'Wow,' I said, 'I'm really surprised you made it before midnight.'

'It doesn't really take that long,' he explained, 'if you simply delete them all.'

True to form, he had developed a strategy before most of us had even heard of e-mail. If any information he was sent was sufficiently vital, his lack of response would ensure the sender rang him up. If the sender wasn't important enough to have his private number, the communication couldn't be sufficiently important. My friend is now even more senior in the same company, so the stategy must work, although these days, I don't tend to send him many e-mails.

Almost every week now, there seems to be another report suggesting that we are all being driven crazy by the torment of e-mail. But if this is the case, it's only because we haven't developed the same discrimination in dealing with e-mail as we do with post. Have you ever mistaken an important letter for a piece of unsolicited advertising and thrown it out? Of course you haven't. This is because of the obliging stupidity of 99 per cent of advertisers, who just can't help making their mailshots look like the junk mail that they are. Junk e-mail looks equally unnecessary to read. Why anyone would feel the slightest compulsion to open the sort of thing entitled 'SPECIALOFFER@junk.com' I cannot begin to understand. Even viruses, those sneaky messages that contain a bug which can corrupt your whole computer system, come helpfully labelled with packaging that shrieks 'danger, do not open'.

Handling e-mail is an art. Firstly, you junk anything with an exclamation mark or a string of capital letters, or from any address you don't recognise or feel confident about. Secondly, while I can't quite support my American friend's radical policy, e-mails don't all have to be answered. Because e-mailing is so easy, there's a tendency for correspondence to carry on for ever, but it is permissible to end a strand of discussion by simply not discussing it any longer - or to accept a point of information sent by a colleague without acknowledging it.

Thirdly, a reply e-mail doesn't have to be the same length as the original. We all have e-mail buddies who send long, chatty e-mails, which are nice to receive, but who then expect an equally long reply. Tough. The charm of e-mail can lie in the simple, suspended sentence, with total disregard for the formalities of the letter sent by post. You are perfectly within the bounds of politeness in responding to a marathon e-mail with a terse one-liner, like: 'How distressing. I'm sure it will clear up.'



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