An obscure twentieth-century physicist named Albert Einstein said: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Our technologies now develop faster than our ability to think about their humane or courteous use. Before we can assess the impact of the iPod, the iPhone appears; and before we can assess the iPhone, the iPad appears (and then the Cloud). Our tools are being developed faster than our capacity to know how to use them properly. The fundamental principle that motivates the following comments is this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The basic law of charity (and therefore of courtesy) is this: Don’t make someone else’s life worse (i.e. busier, more distracted) than it already is without some good and sufficient reason.
Anna Post (spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute) put it this way: “Technology and etiquette have a fascinating intersection. Etiquette lets people know how to act in common — and sometimes uncommon — situations, and how to expect others to react. But the pace of technology is blazingly fast and creates new situations daily. So we have to apply a basic tenet of etiquette — be considerate of those around us — to constantly adapt to how we, as a society, want to use technology.”
Electronic technologies, as Ms. Post observed, have a particular tendency towards the inhumane and/or discourteous. People occasionally communicate things in an email that they would probably never communicate face-to-face. A total stranger recently emailed me, and (without introduction), wrote words to this effect: “I just read your article entitled So-and-So. How can you say so-and-so…(and the rant continued)?” Well, in the article in question I made five arguments for why I understood a particular Pauline passage a particular way, and I also cited a number of orthodox theologians who had understood the text the same way. So I had already indicated “how” I (and others) could say so-and-so. I may have been unpersuasive, or even unclear; but if I was unpersuasive and/or unclear in a published, peer-reviewed scholarly essay that I had worked on for months, was I likely to be more persuasive or clear in an email reply?
But of course the sender was not looking to be informed; his question was rhetorical, and all he was really doing was blowing off steam. But here’s the broader point: I doubt he would have walked into my office, as a total stranger, and said, face-to-face, “Dr. Gordon, how can you say so-and-so?” I would either have asked him to leave, or would myself have left (or, were I taller, I might have punched him in the nose), because such behavior, face-to-face, would have been regarded as rude. So why wasn’t/isn’t it rude to do so from a digital distance, hiding anonymously behind a computer screen? Discourtesy is still discourtesy; but now the discourtesy is conjoined to cowardice. Email should not be an excuse for discourteous behavior (and, by the way, I deleted this individual’s email without replying or reading any further; deleting discourteous email is one of the digital revolution’s few pleasures).
The following recommendations are motivated by the twin concerns to use email efficiently and courteously; some are motivated more by the one than the other. They do not have the weight of the Decalogue that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai; they are not moral absolutes, but rather guidelines/suggestions from a person who has studied ethics and technology for over thirty years. I include my rationale for each; if you disagree with the rationale, then you will, of course, disagree with the suggestion. You may violate many of these with close friends or family members, because we routinely “skip” certain courtesies with such friends and family members. Taken as general guidelines, however, I believe they will assist the cause of human courtesy.
1. Use an Informative Subject Line
There is a purpose for the subject line. It tells the recipient what the email is about, so that the recipient can prioritize his/her emails (or respectfully choose to delete without reading, as I do for many of mine). On a busy day, the recipient may only have ten or fifteen minutes available between meetings, and needs to know which (if any) emails need immediate attention. If the recipient must read the email in order to make this determination, and then determines that the email did not need immediate attention, it is too late; and other emails, more urgent than yours, did not receive attention.
- “About tomorrow’s Greek quiz.” This tells the recipient exactly what the email is about, especially because it mentions the particular class (“Greek”); this is much better than “About tomorrow’s quiz,” because I ordinarily teach four courses/semester, and have no way of knowing which quiz in which class is being inquired about.
- “Summer plans.” If this arrives in January, the recipient knows it is not an emergency.
- “From John Smith.” This is not adequate as a subject line. My personal policy is to delete all emails that have nothing in the subject line, and to delete all emails whose subject lines say nothing. I encourage you to do the same. Better would be this: “Greetings from John Smith,” which at least tells the recipient that nothing particularly important is in the email; it may be opened at the recipient’s leisure.
- “About tomorrow’s class.” I ordinarily teach four; this does not even tell me which class the email is about. “Tomorrow’s Greek class,” or “Tomorrow’s HUMA 201 class” is better.
- “Important question.” The question may be important to you, but not important to the recipient. Say something more specific: “Important question about Greek.” Even better: “Greek question” (and let the recipient be the judge of how important it is). Worst of all: “Question.” Nearly all emails have some sort of question in it, so to put “Question” in the subject line is scarcely better than saying “Email” in the subject line.
Nothing would be more useful to me than a spam filter that automatically deleted emails that had nothing in the subject line; I’ve been trying for at least five years to figure out how to do this, and so far none of my computer-savvy friends have had a solution. If you have one, please let me know.
2. Introduce yourself.
In our culture, where we have many contacts from many experiences, do not assume the recipient knows who you are just by name. To answer your email thoughtfully, the recipient needs to know something about you. I sometimes receive theological questions from people who know me, but whom I either do not know or have forgotten (maybe they read an article or book I wrote?). In answering the question, it helps to know whether the person is a college grad or not, a seminary grad or not, a pastor, a professor, a deacon, etc. That is, I need to know how much theological knowledge the person probably already has, in order to know how to answer efficiently. Unless you are 100% sure the person will know you by name (e.g. you are President of the United States), introduce yourself briefly:
“Dr. Gordon, you may not remember me, but I was a Greek student of yours at Gordon-Conwell Seminary.”
“Dr. Gordon, you may have forgotten, but I visited your church in New Hampshire in the early 1990s.”
“I didn’t have you as a professor, but I was a student at Grove City College, and graduated in 2004.”
“I was recommended to you by your former colleague, Bob Smith.”
“I am a recent graduate of Covenant Seminary, and I read an article of yours in Modern Reformation.”
“We have never met, but I am a deacon and Sunday School teacher at First Baptist Church in Nashville, TN.”
Some people (courteous people) include a “signature” in their emails, because this electronic signature identifies them. My signature, for instance, is this:
“Dr. T. David Gordon
Professor of Religion and Greek
Grove City College
If you put an instructive signature at the bottom of your emails, you may not need to introduce yourself (and consider including your name in your email address, which also helps the recipient recognize who you are. “CleverGuy17@gmail.com” does not tell the recipient who you are, and indeed, by concealing your identity the recipient may regard you as less clever than you think). A college student could easily provide something like this:
Grove City College 2017
Your introduction effectively permits the recipient to determine whether to give you his/her attention, and what kind of attention to give. No one has an infinite amount of attention to give. On a given day, I have my wife, my daughters, my students, fellow colleagues in the ministry or in the college; editors, readers, fellow church-members, etc. who might wish to have my attention. I constantly must decide how much attention to give to various individuals and various projects (working on lectures or writing essays, books, articles, and reviews). If I give half an hour to answering one individual’s email question, that is a half-hour that I am not giving to someone else or something else. I need some justification for making that decision. I routinely delete emails without a reply, simply because some anonymous individual asks me a fairly complex theological question without introducing himself. I simply do not have thirty to sixty minutes in an average day merely to satisfy someone’s curiosity. If he is a pastor, working on a sermon, then my commitment to the church is such that I take the time to help; my helping a pastor helps everyone in his church, so there is an excellent return on the investment of my time. But I simply cannot be the “Bible answer man” for every individual on the planet who has an email account; I need a reason to give my attention, on a given day, to one individual vs. another.
3. Emails are not novels
If you have more than a page or so, you should ordinarily use an attachment created in a word processor. Few people desire to read a ten-page email; they would rather print it first. When I see that an email is more than a page long, I often delete it without reading it. Word processors format written English much better than email, which was/is designed for quick memos. If you have something lengthy to say, compose it in a word processor and attach it.
Just as important, do not ask the recipient to write you a novel–the virtue of email is a rapid reply to a straightforward question; it is no place for a general or lengthy discussion: Here are some that I simply delete when I receive them:
–“Dr. Gordon, I would be interested in your take on the question of divine sovereignty v. human responsibility.” This is a profound and serious question; I am not going to write a 200-page theological treatise in answer to an email. Further, ordained as I am in the Presbyterian Church in America, the Westminster Confession of Faith is my confession, so what it says is my “take” on the matter. One might as well ask a Lutheran minister what his “take” on the Lord’s Supper is. Read the Standards of Concord, which are his confession of faith, and they will tell you the standard Lutheran answer.
–“Dr. Gordon, how do I study for your class?” First of all, this question should be raised in class, so I can answer it once for 25 students rather than answer it 25 separate times. Second, isn’t learning how to learn part of what college teaches us? That is, I do not know (and cannot know) the particular cognitive abilities of each of my students; therefore, what works for one may or may not work for another anyway, so all I could do is say something general, such as, “Read the material, looking for the most important vocabulary, concepts, and information, perhaps making marginalia or taking notes; and do the same with the lectures.” Visit me in my office, and I will do my best to assist you with questions about your particular study skills; email is not the place to attempt such a thing.
–“What do you think about the attached/linked/referenced article/essay/book?” Ordinarily, it is inappropriate to ask an academic to write a personal review, just for you. Most articles/essays/books have stronger points and weaker points, and evaluating them thoroughly and fairly is a difficult and time-consuming task (for which I am ordinarily paid a couple hundred dollars, if I do it for a journal). If you have a specific question about a work, a question that can be quickly answered, that is fine, e.g., “Do you know if Dr. Schuchard studied under Neil Postman?”, or “Is So-and-So regarded as a competent New Testament scholar?” But to ask an academic to review a work generally is to ask him to read it several times, carefully, and then to compose a thoughtful, fair reply; in short, it is an invitation for him to spend four or five times as much time on the matter as you did.
4. Don’t tie people up with lengthy attachments (and explain them).
You may think the YouTube video you just watched was the most interesting/edifying/amusing thing you’ve ever seen. Your recipient may not wish to spend five minutes watching it only to disagree. Explain briefly what the video is about, so the recipient can be the judge of whether he does or does not wish to watch the thing (Note: “Really cool video” or “You’ll love this” is not an explanation; it is a value-judgment that tells the recipient nothing about the content). I rarely open an attachment without such an explanation. I also keep a mental list of people who occasionally or frequently send me such junk, and I ordinarily don’t open anything they send any more. So don’t ask me: “Did you see that YouTube I sent you?”, because, if I answer “no,” that means I’ve put you on the ****-list because of your previous indiscretions.
5. Quantify attachments
If you include a video or audio attachment, indicate how long the attachment will take: “Five minute interview with Neil Postman” tells the recipient what the attachment is about (the late Prof. Postman), and that it will take only five minutes. The recipient may then decide whether he has enough interest in Neil Postman to watch a five-minute interview.
Not long ago, I received an email from a total stranger (I may have known him once, but I did not recognize anything about him, and he did not introduce himself, see #2 above) who attached a .wmv file, saying, “if you watch this to the end you will understand why I sent it.” Well, I watched it to its (12-minute!) end, and was still entirely clueless as to why it was sent to me; I had no idea at all. All I knew was that a total stranger, with no self-introduction, had expended 12 minutes of my day. Such behavior is simply uncharitable; it does not pass the “Golden Rule” test. None of us would dream of saying to a total stranger: “Go outside and stand on the sidewalk for twelve minutes; then come back in and return to your work;” but with email attachments we do the equivalent routinely.
If the attachment is an MSWord (or pdf) file, indicate how many pages long it is (e.g., “5 pages, DS”), so the recipient can know whether he/she has time to read it now or should wait for another occasion. I rarely knowingly send an attachment such as this without indicating its length; the only exception I make is if someone solicits the file: “Dr. Gordon, I understand you wrote an article/chapter/paper on X; would you send it to me as an attachment?” Under such circumstances, I send the solicited file; under all unsolicited circumstances, I indicate to the recipient how long the file is.
6. Don’t send emails to everyone you know; select your recipients wisely.
When I had Stage III cancer, and wasn’t sure whether I would survive or not, I only sent my weekly update to my immediate family. If others asked to be included, I then included them; otherwise, I did not assume other people’s world revolved around mine. My situation was literally “life or death,” but even then, I did not presume that everyone was interested in whether I lived or died (or what position they took on the matter…). Why do you think the content of your emails is more important than my cancer was? Every email you send is an intrusion upon the life of its recipient, albeit possibly a minor intrusion. Think about which people you are sending it to; and do not lazily send it to your “all” list (Why does anyone even have an “all” list? Does anyone other than God deserve universal attention? Or are you God?).
7. Don’t hide your message behind some background “wallpaper.”
I routinely receive emails that cannot easily be read because someone has chosen some busy, distracting “wallpaper” as a background for their emails. I refuse to go to the effort of cut-and-pasting the message into Microsoft Word just to read it; I just delete it. You should too. You would never think of meeting a person face-to-face to ask a question, and then turn your back while talking, making it hard for the other individual to read your lips and understand what you are saying. So why obscure your email questions/comments behind distracting wallpaper? In fact, why do the software engineers even include it as an option? What were they thinking? (Perhaps we should consider requiring computer engineers to take a remedial course in Humanity 101, to prevent them from making things simply because they can be made).
8. Respect listserv groups.
Many groups set up a listserv related to a particular club, organization, or activity. Try to keep your posts to such groups pertinent. E.g. If you are part of a listserv group devoted to English poetry, do not send political messages to such a group, even if they are discussing a political poem such as William Butler Yeats’s “Easter 1916.”
9. Beware the “reply all” and “forward” buttons
“Reply all” is the source of a good deal of offense being given and taken. Sometimes an email discussion begins with four people, and then one of the four adds another individual or two, whom they believe will appreciate the discussion, without notifying the others that they have done so. Others continue to hit “reply all,” thinking they know who is on the list, but end up sending it to people who take offense. So: ordinarily, never, EVER add anyone to an already-existing list WITHOUT INDICATING SO IN CAPITAL LETTERS TO EVERYONE ELSE ON THE LIST, e.g.: “I THOUGHT BOB SMITH WOULD BE INTERESTED, SO I ADDED HIM TO THE LIST.” You owe it to the others to call attention to the fact that you have just invited others to the list. Several times colleagues on the faculty who are discussing a sensitive institutional issue will add an administrator to the list without informing the rest of us. Well, administrators sometimes (only when they are awake) get defensive when there is any suggestion that our institution may yet be imperfect, and on more than one occasion, I’ve received curt responses from such administrators. Had I known they had been added to the list, I would have been happy to have worded my reply in such a way that it was clear that I did not regard the administrators as being responsible for the perceived imperfection.
Closely related are two other points. These emails can be sent very fast, and cannot be easily recalled. Before you hit “reply all,” you need to be very sure that you wish everyone to receive it. I once sent an email to my students, indicating where a reading assignment could be found on the network, and one student, thinking she was responding only to a friend, said: “I’m going to blow off this assignment. Maybe I’ll get a 100 like you did on last week’s quiz. hahahahaha.” By the time she realized she had sent it to the entire class (and its bemused instructor), it was too late, so she sent about 8 or 10 “recall” notices, but it was too late.
Similarly, do not forget that any message you send to anyone can be forwarded by that individual (deliberately or unintentionally) to anyone else. Once you send it, it is potentially in the public domain. Electronic technologies such as email are therefore not very wise for gossip or for catty remarks (unless they are about computer engineers; see 7., above), because once you send an email there is nothing you can do to prevent the recipient (even if you have checked the recipient list carefully) from forwarding it indiscriminately.
10. Lock the front door.
People routinely lock the door before retiring for the evening. We do not let just anyone wander into our house; we invite those whom we trust and like. Email is no different. If individuals are discourteous in the emails they send to you, if they have a pattern of committing the kinds of discourtesies I mention here, just put them on your spam list or delete their emails individually as they arrive. They are abusing a privilege, whether they are intending to or not. They will soon learn that they need to contact you via some other medium, because you do not reply to their use of this one.
11. If you ask a question, provide enough information for the recipient to answer without hiring a private detective or a research assistant.
I recently received an email from an unintroduced sender (it was probably CleverGuy17@gmail.com), who asked, “What do you know about the following four denominations?” Well, as a clergyman, a former professor at Gordon-Conwell seminary, and a professor of religion here at Grove City, I actually know quite a bit about a number of denominations. “What do you know about…” is simply too broad. Did the sender wish to know about the doctrines held by these denominations? Did he wish to know where they were geographically centered? Did he wish to know their size, their average income, the average tenure of the average pastor? Did he wish to have a summary of their history? Was he inquiring because he was looking for a church home, or was he inquiring because he was himself a minister and was considering affiliating with one of them? So I deleted the email without answering, because I wasn’t about to write a 15-page essay on each of four different denominations, just to cover the bases of what he meant by “what do you know about…” He could have said, “I recently moved to an area and am looking for a church home. Are these denominations healthy or orthodox?” Or, he could have said, “I am myself an ordained minister, and I am considering moving my credentials to one of the following four denominations; can you think of any reason why I should or should not?”
On another occasion, an unintroduced stranger asked me “What are your views on Paul and the Law?” Well, if we include my doctoral dissertation on that topic, my recent 500 page book on Galatians, and various articles in journals and books, I’ve written well over a thousand pages on this topic. Did the stranger actually expect me to cut-and-paste all thousand pages into a reply? Did he want me to send him my 75-page syllabus/outline on that topic for the course by that title that I have taught at three different seminaries? Why didn’t he just read what I have written (much of which is available for free on my website)? I deleted the email without reply because it was discourteously general. No one who has written a thousand pages on a topic should be asked (via anonymous email) to summarize a thousand pages.
Similarly, students sometimes ask me questions that are so general that it would take me substantial investigative efforts to answer them. They will cut-and-paste a link to a website into an email, and ask, “Dr. Gordon, may I use this in my paper?” Well, they have not identified themselves by name; they have not indicated which of my classes they are taking; they have not told me what their paper topic is; so I simply do not have the information I need to answer the question. I should not be required to do a search on the student, find which class he is taking, inquire as to what topic he is writing about, and then—only then—render an opinion about the credibility of the website he sent. If he wishes to have my assistance, he must assist me; he must give me the information I need to answer his question. I am not a mind-reader, and I am not a private detective; I am a mere human, and I need some information before I answer a question.
12. Be clear about dates, times, and places
When speaking face-to-face, it is a simple matter to ask for clarification. Emails do not permit this, and it is not entirely courteous to make the recipient sleuth around and find the necessary information; provide it. Do not say, “Can I talk with you tomorrow?”, but “Can I talk with you tomorrow (Tuesday)?” Yes, you may have sent the message on Sunday night, and if the recipient wishes to look around for that information, he may find it. It is just as likely that he will not check his mail until Monday, and will therefore assume that “tomorrow” is Tuesday. So, unless you are having real-time, back-and-forth emails to a person, and ESPECIALLY if you send it after the working hours, you should make clear what specific day you mean by “tomorrow” (or “today,” etc.). Similarly, avoid/evade saying “next week” or “next year,” without qualifying with an actual date, e.g. “next week, September 20-26)” or “next year (2014).” “Next year” can mean “next academic year,” or, to an accountant, “next fiscal year.” Don’t make the recipient email you back to ask what you intended; express your intention clearly. It is not the recipient’s duty to sleuth around and discover this information; the recipient demonstrates courtesy merely by opening the email and reading it; you (the sender) demonstrate courtesy by being clear.
A Concluding Example
I recently received the following email, that I have altered mildly in order to protect the identity of the offender:
I’d be interested in your thoughts on this post from blogger Blogger’s Name:
… I’d be especially interested in your take on his claim that “claim about the Nicene creed in quotemarks.”
It is quite an achievement to write such an entirely wrong email; almost everything about it is discourteous (and at least one part was simply ungrammatical). The only way this email could have been more discourteous is if he had made allegations about my late mother’s behavior with some sailors one week-end. Biff did not identify himself in any way—no signature, no title, no “I met you at a conference in Atlanta,” nothing. I have utterly no idea who Biff is (other than that he is conceited enough to assume that I know who he is). Further, he directs me to a website without telling me how lengthy the post is or who the author is; the only way I can discover whether it is a brief or lengthy post is by opening it (of course I didn’t; I simply deleted the email). He further told me nothing about why he is interested in the matter itself or the blogger or me. Is he going through a crisis of faith? Is he a pastor, preparing to give a lecture or sermon? Is he a candidate for the ministry preparing for his theological examinations? And why is he “interested” in my “take”? Anyone who knows me knows that I am a ministerial member in good and regular standing in Ascension Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. This means that I subscribe fully to the Westminster standards, so it goes without saying that my Christology is entirely orthodox, and entirely consistent with the ancient creeds of the church such as the Nicene Creed. My “take” on the orthodox creeds is already a matter of public record. And if Biff knows anything about me he knows that I do not blog on my own website, because I regard blogging ordinarily as a waste of time: people with little pertinent academic training pontificate about matters about which they are virtual ignoramuses without any accountability to any editorial staff, and others (who are ordinarily equally unacquainted with the topic) read what they say and comment about it. Nothing–and I mean almost literally nothing—interests me less than reading or commenting about what someone says on a blog somewhere; I would rather watch paint dry. So who is this Biff, who thinks I have any interest in spending my time reading a blog just because he (whoever he is) is “interested” in my “take”? I don’t owe him my thoughts on this or anything else. Total strangers have no claim on my time or attention (or yours); if they request it graciously, and explain the circumstances that motivate them, I might decide, as an act of Christian generosity or pastoral concern, to give them my attention. In Biff’s case, I simply deleted his email without a reply (cursing under one’s breath is not technically a reply…). I won’t be surprised if I receive a “follow-up” from Biff in a few days, asking if I received his earlier email. I will delete it also (or forward it to CleverGuy17@gmail.com).
Digital technologies are prized for being fairly quick. One can write an email more easily and more quickly than one can write a thoughtful, handwritten letter. But for this very reason, they are also easy to use discourteously. Anything done quickly, and therefore almost tautologically, is done less thoughtfully; and the essence of courtesy is thoughtfulness, a consideration of others, their time, and their energies. The World Wide Web may, technologically, connect us to anyone and everyone; this does not mean that anyone or everyone is at our beck and call, and we should not act as though we assume that anyone or everyone is. As with many other matters of courtesy, a very good general principle is to ask this question: What would happen if everyone did what I am about to do? How inconvenient would it be to the recipient if fifty or a hundred people sent the email I sent?
Appendix to Email Courtesy
Here is an email I recently received (February 2015), in its entirety, except that I changed the name of the individual and his church to preserve anonymity:
“I’m going to teach some of the principles of your book to men we’re training to preach. Do you have any handouts or notes or worksheets or presentations that you would be willing to share? Thanks!
Bob Smith, Lead Pastor
- There is neither an introduction or even a salutation. No “Dear Dr. Gordon,” or anything like it.
- “some of the principles of your book” does not specify which principles.
- “some of the principles of your book” does not specify which of my books he is referring to.
- “men we’re training to preach” does not tell me what else is involved in their training. Are these seminary graduates who are now doing an internship at his church? Are they college grads, high school grads? I design all of my lectures, sermons, articles, books, etc. for specific audiences; if I know nothing about my audience, how can I know what would help them?
- Assuming that he is probably referring to my Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, the entire final chapter consists of practical advice regarding training preachers; if I had anything to say about the matter, I would have put it in that chapter.
- “any handouts or notes or worksheets or presentations” is unfairly general and vague. Do I just purchase a thumb drive, and put the entire contents of my computer on there? Does he want information about the theology of Christian proclamation, or merely about the “how-to” of sermon preparation, or of biblical interpretation, or of public speaking? Or, nearly as bad, do I spend an afternoon going through my computer, attempting to guess what might help? And why should I be expected to expend such time and effort for a total stranger who does not even introduce himself to me?
- “…or presentations that you would be willing to share…” I maintain a website, at my own expense, and I put such information there for the entire public to use as it wishes. Why doesn’t he take the time to see if what he is looking for is already there? Even if he is not yet aware of my website, why wouldn’t he Google first, just to see, since many people do maintain such sites? If he just Googled for my name, it would take him there. I have already been “willing to share,” and have put such information in a public place. I already have posted there a 19-page annotated bibliography that I used in my course on the church and its ministry at Gordon-Conwell; what else does he want?
- His signature includes only his name and the name of his church; nothing about the church’s history or denomination. Some denominations have different views about preaching; I would instruct Lutherans differently than I would instruct Southern Baptists, for instance, and I know nothing about what kind of church this individual is a pastor of. I even checked the website, and it said nothing that helped at all.