The E-mail Craze

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by Heather Pears

Email has become the most popular way for people to communicate with each other; some say it’s even more popular than using the telephone, which might seem hard to believe until you take a look at some of the reasons why people prefer email to phone calls.

One of the most convenient things about email for a non-English speaker is that you are relieved of the pressure of trying to come up with the right words to carry on a conversation. When you are speaking to someone face-to-face you have to think quickly, which can cause anxiety. With an email you can take your time figuring out the message you have received and then take a bit more time to compose your answer. You have control over the speed of communication.

Email also allows people to remain somewhat anonymous; you only need to reveal what you want the other person to know. This is great for those of us who are shy or are just uncomfortable talking to people we don’t know. The danger with anonymity is that sometimes people say things they wouldn’t normally say. The lack of face-to-face pressure can result in a person opening up and saying things the recipient doesn’t really want to hear. Sharing very personal information can embarrass people who will then not want to continue the communication. And it is quite common for people to make up completely false things about themselves.

Email can also create a false sense of closeness. To explain this, I will use an example. Let’s say you are going to university and one of your favourite classes has a couple hundred other students. The instructor for this course is brilliant and you enjoy his lectures. As a way of speeding up communication with his students the instructor has given out his email address. To show that you’ve been paying attention in class you think up a few questions and email them to the instructor. It’s only natural to want the approval of someone in a position of authority and you are pleased when you get a reply to your questions. Unfortunately you abuse the privilege by emailing often with questions; even questions asking for personal information about your teacher. Maybe you start to brag to your classmates that you and the teacher are friends. Your instructor does not see this as a friendship and does not answer your messages anymore.

An important part of human communication is body language, facial cues and tone of voice. When your significant other is upset with you, one look at their face and crossed arms gets the message across loud and clear. This subtlety is lost when the message is typed. If your email friend types, “Oh, get lost”, do they literally mean for you to go away or are they just kidding? Without seeing their face or gestures you can’t be sure what they mean. Of course human beings are creative and we have found ways around this communication difficulty with creative keyboarding. Someone familiar with chat rooms will know what LOL and [g] mean. For someone who is still trying to learn English this can really add to the confusion.

Thanks to email we can now communicate with people all over the world. This is both exciting and challenging. When you are far from loved ones email can help you stay connected with them. You can get first hand information about life in another culture, perhaps even go so far as to arrange a visit if you plan a trip to your e-friend’s country. How nice to have a guide to show you around a bit. The challenge with cross-cultural communication is that you must be careful not to offend. Some cultures are open to discussing almost anything, some are not. A good rule to follow is to be appropriately friendly, polite and as clear as possible. Avoid using slang, idioms, and colloquialisms.

Email is a fact of life today. People around the world share ideas, sell things, buy things, make friends, and lose friends. It can be very useful for sharing information and building relationships but it can also be nuisance. Anyone who emails knows what spam is about! I encourage you to enjoy your email but accept it for what it is…it cannot replace real, “in-person” relationships.