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The Decline of Civility in Email

Is it just my imagination or have the last couple of years seen a complete abandonment of the rules of basic professional civility in the way people treat one another in business correspondence?

In my youth, I remember my parents' generation were readers of a popular etiquette coach, whose pseudonymous identity was known as "Miss Manners." Miss Manners was the umpire of polite society, offering her call on appropriate dating behavior, appropriate party behavior, even appropriate funeral behavior.

Miss Manners, it turns out, has been very smartly reconceived by The Washington Post. And our need for her has never seemed more dire.

Our online behaviors and the tools which facilitate them are changing quickly. There seems to be no universal consensus about what are and aren't appropriate ways to act in the digital channels we use daily. This post attempts to answer what seems like an almost metaphysical question for our age:

How can we treat each other with dignity and respect in an era of where our communications channels mask - by their very virtual nature - our essential humanity?

I seem most bothered by email decorum lately. I am witness to a fair number of bad behaviors lately in my correspondence's with colleagues and clients. (And I don't claim to not be an occasional perpetrator, as well.)

Most of those behaviors fall into the general category of "you asked me to do something for you. I did it. And now you've vanished and won't even take the time to acknowledge my considerable efforts with a one line email."

Email Behavior 1: "The Driveby Proposal Requester."

The most common example of this type is the sales prospect who calls out of the blue, talks glowingly of your work and tells you about his spiffy new project. He's all juiced and wants to make you part of his vision. He outlines his scope and asks for a proposal. A few days go by and, after you've spent thirty minutes to two hours of your time preparing a brief, you give him one. As a PDF and via email (that might have been a mistake...)

A day goes by without hearing anything. If you're like me, you take out your original email, resend it and pretend like you've never sent it before. A couple more days go by and you ramp up the urgency. If lack-of-closure is a personal pain point for you, you continue to pursue. Your emails start getting sent "return receipt" or "sender confirmed" and you start making phone calls. Maybe you eventually get a response and maybe you don't. The experience does, however, leave you with waning faith in the basic civility of your fellow humans though. And probably dampens your enthusiasm for sales.

And the Driveby Proposal Requester is but one merchant of this sort of bad email manners. I get the "I'm going to ignore your email" behavior all the time, even in ongoing projects with people who should have a vested interest in moving things along. Here's a typical example of this sort of behavior.

The "I'm In a Hurry but I'll Ignore Your Emails Anyway" Client.

John and Julie are your clients. John and Julie have both asked you to "fast track" their project and keep it on the front burner. The project, which is typical of most website design projects, is filled with complexities the client hasn't necessarily anticipated. In the course of doing your job, you realize that, for instance, you were sent a series of photographs for a given section which were obviously sent in error. There's a review deadline in a week and you need to have those photos resent by your client in a hurry. You dash off a quick email. It's not alarming but it does express that the lack of photography is holding up completion of that section of the site. No hurry yet, but "could you just look into this for me and send us the correct images so we can continue making progress?"

A day goes by. You "wash, rinse and repeat" that first email. No luck. Within the next two days, you get your answer. Depending on how critical the information was, you either break the news to client that they're now off deadline or you grit your teeth and push the work out in time.

So, what to do about these variants on non-responsive email correspondents? I've got some advice:

If you're the rude correspondent (or non-correspondent): Stop it. Just stop it. Pause for once and realize that, by calling a professional and asking them to outline a scope of services , you're asking them to take time out of their day and give you the benefit of their years of experience. The thinking represented in most proposals has implicit value, even if you don't hire the firm which has prepared it. I like to think that most of my proposals contain relevant business insights.

You're getting something, often for free. Show some civility and respond to the firm providing you with this information. Even if you don't move forward with them, let them know. And - if you really want to seem evolved - have a five minute phone conversation about the proposal. You might find out that assumptions you were making about pricing or services were, in fact, incorrect and it might make for better decisionmaking.

And, if you're a client who has been plaintively emailing that a project is "top priority" and needs to be done ASAP then prove the urgency by responding to project management emails with the measure of importance you've indicated the project posesses.

If you're the guy being ignored: Don't get caught in this trap in the first place. Your first tip that you might be dealing with a Driveby Proposal Requester should be when they let you know that they'd like you to email the proposal in PDF form in the first place. Don't fall for it.

This type of "just email me it" behavior has been around for years. As a firm, we've had to set some rules. We've had clients ask us to deliver creative briefs via PDF. We've even had them give them access to the backend of a Wordpress install so they can "make a few quick changes" to our work in progress.

My advice is to start setting boundaries. If you want clients to respect the proposal you've written for them, don't disrespect its worth by thinking it can be delivered as an email attachment. In short, set up a phone or (God forbid!) an in-person meeting where you can review the proposal with the client. Nothing beats an interactive proposal or brief review. It gives both client and firm the opportunity to explore meaning and clarify misunderstandings.

When I began this post, I intended to write about civility on all manner of online channels. As is often the case, I found more than enough to explore in just one topic. But wait until I start in on Facebook and Twitter...

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