The first email was sent on a local network in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson. He sent this to a computer sitting right next to his computer and the message was “something like QWERTYUIOP” in the email. Tomlinson was also the one who began using the @ sign in emails. 1

Historical Context

Almost 50 years later and know emails have taken over our lives. EMAIL was developed by a 14 year old in the early 80s. The first attachment was added in 1992. Hotmail and Yahoo Mail emerged in the late 90s. “You’ve Got Mail” with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks sealed the deal in 1998. The early 2000s brought Gmail, smartphones, and then we became fully dependent. The average office worker between 2014 and 2018 sent about 40 emails and received about 90 emails a day. 3 Almost 50 years later and emails have now taken over our lives. If you are in your twenties, or even early thirties, you may not even know what life is like without email.

But It all started with that first email. What is so fitting about Tomlinson’s first email is that it is a great metaphor for what I see as the problems in email even now.

Relationships

The first thing to consider is that the first email was sent to a computer sitting about a foot away. So many times we send emails instead of talk or meet in person even when we have offices next door or rooms close by. This can be a problem because emails do not build relationships as a normal conversation would. Half of having a conversation is active listening to what the other person is saying. Emails instead are mostly about telling others what you want them to know and demanding information or tasks from them. Even requests for information in emails sound more like a chore compared to doing the same thing in a normal conversation with that person.

Content

The second thing to consider from Tomlinson’s email is the content of the message he sent. It was basically gibberish and with no real meaning or purpose. Many of our emails tend to be similar in nature even now, and often unnecessary. Even worse, some emails are very important and needed, but hard to follow for the reader, so end up lacking in full understanding or follow through.

The Challenge

My challenge to myself and to you (if you so accept it) is to make a better effort in reducing your need for email and increase your personal interactions. Here are some ways to do this:

  1. Go see the person directly or call them on the phone. Usually one conversation is worth three or four emails that would have occurred back and forth.
  2. If you have a disagreement about something, please do not use email to solve that problem! People read into every word and sentence in email even if you don’t intend it that way. Emails don’t show inflection and feeling like facial expressions do.
  3. Combine ideas or requests into one email. Send less emails but make the ones you send more meaningful.
  4. Consider the time of day when sending email. Many companies and school divisions have rules that limit sending email only during work hours. Take advantage of settings like in Outlook to delay all emails or specific emails to send only once work begins the next day.
  5. Don’t give in to the desire to answer every email right away. Read it and then go talk to the person instead.
  6. Send emails only to specific or intended audiences. Don’t send mass emails because you don’t want to take the time to select only certain individuals.

Best of luck with rethinking emails and the challenges that they now bring. We all feel like we couldn’t live without them, but imagine your day with zero emails and the peace it would bring. Maybe that will give you the motivation to begin to reduce them and instead increase the personal dialogue again.

P.S.
After posting this, I was flooded with great ideas and responses about emails. One was a reference by Kenny Bassett to an article titled “Help Create an Email Charter!” with more great email tips such as using only the subject line for information, being ok with short responses, and using NNTR for “No need to respond.” Click here to read the whole article.