The medium is the rude message

The problem with e-mail is that it came about before schoolmarms could prepare people to use it, therefore it was simply thrown to the the barbarians, or at least our most barbaric impulses.

They used to teach us how to write a letter, which always had to start with the proper salutation, such as “Dear sir,” or “Dear madam,” or “Dear sirs,” after which would come the text of the letter and then the closure, almost always “Sincerely,” or even “Sincerely yours” if you were in a particularly ingratiating mood.

A flowery opening such as “Dear sir,” or even “My dear sir,” immediately puts one on a higher plane of civility, the tone of which is sure to be continued in the text. Following “Dear sir” with “You idiot!” just doesn’t fit, it’s a clear case of mixing applies and oranges. A critical letter is more likely to transition from “Dear sir” to something like this: “With all due respect, I must take exception to the comments you expressed on the subject of . . .”

Indeed, the entire process of writing and posting a genuine letter is almost certain to produce a civil tone. First, you must find the paper, then a writing implement, and only then can you begin the epistle. By which time you’ve no doubt calmed down from the initial reaction to whatever prompted your letter and are thinking more rationally. Upon completing the letter, one must find a stamp and then walk or drive to the mailbox. This provides a lengthy cooling off period, when one might have second thoughts, rip open the envelope, discard the “Dear idiot,” salutation, and proceed in a more civilized tone.

Such is not the case with e-mail, which is a medium that inspires rudeness. As an example, one might read something in the newspaper with which one disagrees and run to the computer to dash off a response. The computer with its keyboard and video screen looks more like a missile launch control system from which one’s enemies can be instantaneously vaporized than it does a letter-writing device, and that is often how e-mail is used. Type in a few angry words, thrown in a rude adjective or two such as “idiot,” “moron” or “insipid,” and then press the “send button,” which is like a hair trigger on a .45 caliber pistol. Once you press the button, there’s no time for second thoughts, no cooling off period, the deadly message is on its way to the target with no chance of retrieval.

Haven’t we all wished at times we could push the “unsend” button and pull that e-mail back for a well-deserved rewrite? Anyone who invents a way to suck an e-mail back to the originating machine will be able to buy and sell Bill Gates.

Until that invention occurs, we should be more careful when sending e-mails. People who are polite as politicians in public often come across as rude and obnoxious in an e-mail, which of course can instantly be re-sent to any number of people who will be able to relish in your rudeness, and perhaps dash off a rude reply in return. Cyberspace is churning with thoughts that that should never have been sent, but can never be retrieved or torn up and thrown in the trash.

Hopefully, third grade classrooms across the nation are filled with schoolmarms who are telling kids to be polite when they write e-mails, and to use a proper salutation and closure. And most importantly, don’t hit the “send” button until you’ve walked around the house three times.

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