It’s a popular debate these days: is technology making our communication skills weaker? Critics like to argue that that using digital communication means we aren’t getting the right level of social interaction. They worry that sending texts and short emails cuts down our writing skills. They claim that we’re all going to end up completely incapable of explaining our thoughts in more than 140 characters.
Personally, I don’t worry about my social interaction skills going downhill, or my writing skills disappearing. However, I do think that technology gives us more ways to mess up. Think about this: you’re really mad at your friend, so you fire off 10 texts using harsh language to tell her why she’s terrible and you never want to be friends again. You do this right after your fight, and you’re all worked up. Do you think you’ll be happy with what you sent when you read the texts again a couple hours later? Probably not. The immediacy of digital communication can certainly be to our benefit, but it also gives us the ability to act on urges and emotions before we really think them through. And an additional risk: there’s always the possibility of misinterpretation. My girlfriends spend a lot of time analyzing the texts they get from guys. Probably 98% of that effort is wasted effort, because there isn’t usually a hidden meaning at all. It just seems like there might be, because tone is unclear when something is written out. And since it’s so easy to write and hit send, I think people put less thought into word choice.
Earlier this week, Slate ran a piece about how to sign off from emails. The author, Matthew J.X. Malady, proposed that we get rid of email signatures altogether. Malady argues signatures don’t add much to our emails, and are often rather generically used. Even if someone writes “best regards,” they likely don’t mean their very, very best regards. He pokes fun at some silly sign-offs, and I have to agree with him here: I find it really weird when someone signs an email “warmest regards,” especially if it’s a work email. In fact, I find those signatures off-putting rather than aiding, because they feel hyperbolic and fake. I also agree with Malady that we waste time fretting over the proper sign-off. Does it really make a huge difference if I sign my email “best” or “thanks?” I doubt it. There is a consideration set of sign-offs that are all perfectly polite and normal, and switching between them probably doesn’t change things very much.
Still, I don’t agree with his proposal that we cut signatures altogether and end emails “with the actual last thing that we want to say.” I think that’s totally fine for friends, close colleagues, etc. But when you’re writing to someone you don’t know very well, or someone you need help from, or someone you need to impress (like a potential employer), I think it’s important to convey the right amount of respect. It’s important to show that you’re interested in an actual human relationship and not just favors. And sending an email that’s nothing but instructions, demands or requests wouldn’t convey that. So while I might not write a “dear so-and-so” or a “best” in my emails to my friends, I will certainly do so when I email someone I don’t know. Otherwise, I think we’re treading those dangerous waters in which communication no longer feels like it carries any weight, and we forget that our words are a representation of who we are.