I heard a great piece of advice the other day. Again. (Sometimes I need to hear good advice about a dozen times before it “takes”.)
It’s simple: Don’t put anything in an email you wouldn’t want to see repeated tomorrow in the newspaper.
It’s also violated on a regular basis by people who should know better.
Like… uh… me, for example.
I have recently sent email on two occasions — one to a colleague, one to a client — that I wrote while in my “end of the day” winding-down stupor. Not drunk, not feeling crazy or even ‘onery.
Just letting my guard down a bit, getting ready to hit the sack.
And each email — which I wrote quicky, and sent off with a “what the hell” flourish — caused ENORMOUS chaos. I was misunderstood, I caused panic and alarm, I nearly ended a 15-year friendship.
I got calls early the next day each time. I couldn’t even remember what the heck I’d written — I certainly hadn’t wanted to kick any beehives over.
But that’s what I’d done.
I’m sure you have your own embarrassing, humiliating or career-ruining examples. Post them in the comments section, if you’re in a confessional mood. It’s not good to keep these sordid stories hidden.
The problem, of course, is the immediacy of email communication. Humans aren’t designed for this kind of click-and-it’s-gone lightning speed communication.
We really need to let things sit and stew for a while.
When I was a kid, the phone was the most immediate means of communication there was… other than running over to someone’s house and staring them down face-to-face. Being in the presence of another person naturally inhibits your urge to tell him how you REALLY feel (unless you’re a psychopath). The phone is one step removed from that, but since you have to form words and attempt coherency, there is still a pretty decent inhibiting factor.
It may only be a fraction of a second, but you still have time to shut up, or even pretend you were misunderstood. (“Did I say ‘would you go to the Prom with me?’ I didn’t mean to say that. I know you’re already going with Bruno. I meant to say ‘wasn’t the weather nice today?'”)
When all else fails, you could always just deny you said whatever the other person said you said.
“No, I didn’t.” “Yes, you did.” “No, I didn’t.”
The old advice for letter writers (going back to the ancient Greeks) was to put the missive aside for at least a day before sending it. Let the words cool down a bit, let your emotions subside, give the whole situation some air.
And this was good advice, whether it concerned matters of love, business, or war.
Today, technology has just plain galloped way past common sense. You can now put a period on your thought and hit send — and have your email shoot into the other person’s mailbox — faster than you can blink.
This is not a good thing.
This immediacy of email, text messaging, and cell phones is bleeding over to everything else we do. A very good book, “Blink” by my main man at the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell, seems to support quick action based on immediate intuition… but it doesn’t.
What Gladwell says is that your first instinct is often correct, even if we don’t understand the logic or computations that went into that first impression.
But he never says to act on it before the thought is through computing.
Listen: I am very fast writer. Sometimes, my first drafts resemble my final drafts… even when I do twelve edits in between. Most of my edit time is on finishing touches. The main thought is often caught in the first draft.
But I never send that first draft off as finished product.
I let most of my copy sit for a day or so. Let it simmer. I want to give it a “cold” read before launch. You’d be astonished at the crap that will scoot by your inner editor while you’re still “too close” to the copy.
We all need to nurture our “Zen” default more. That’s the state you need to relax into, say, when your flight’s delayed and there’s nothing you can do about it. Or when your Significant Other is trying to find something to wear for the big party. Or when you walk outside and — just as you’re about to jump in the car to rush to the post office to beat the Fed Ex truck and get that package sent — you notice that you’re witnessing one of the most glorious sunsets in the history of the world.
Screw the Fed Ex truck.
Sometimes, you just gotta Zen-out. It’s good for you.
I discovered long, long ago that any woman I hooked up with long-term would have to understand that sometimes, I just sit and stare at the wall.
I’ve had women run screaming out of my life, convinced I was a zombie. Or stupid. Or acting.
Most people do not understand, or value, contemplation.
Too bad for them. Their loss.
It’s what we do, writers. We take in massive payloads of info, let it stew, stare at the wall… and allow our experience and skills to mold that info into a killer piece of copy.
If you’ve lost the skill, re-install it in your hard drive.
And stop sending ill-though-out emails.
Side note: My update of the Freelance Course — with everything you need to start your own freelance career immediately — is nearly done. My geek is working on the Web site as I write this.
This is some VERY exciting stuff, too. Did you know I had TWO students earn over $300,000 last year… in their FIRST year of freelancing, after reading my material?
One of them knew NOTHING about copy, or freelancing, or dealing with clients at all. Steep learning curve, but what he did is completely doable by anyone with the piss and vinegar to go neck-deep into the opportunity.
Included in the update is everything you need to know about finding a mob of desperate, cash-rich clients online… so you don’t have to live anywhere near big businesses, don’t have to deal with agencies anymore, don’t even have to ever shave or bathe.
I figure ten days to two weeks, and this puppy will finally be available. You’ll be the first to hear about this blazing new package, through this blog.
"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."
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You touched a sensitive nerve with me as I’m an impulsive person by nature. I firmly believe that greatness follows passion, and there are times we have to make a stand in our communications – but impulsive stands can be the source of future regret.
One of the worst feelings is that sense of sheer horror after a very impulsive and emotional message is already sent – too late – whether an email, or forum post, whatever… maybe just one individual is reading it, maybe dozens, perhaps hundreds or even thousands…
I don’t know about you, but I’ve afflicted myself with moments of pure writhing agony after I came back to read what I had sent so confidently, perhaps flippantly without thinking, just a few hours before.
God, I hate that feeling… “The Dawn Of A Dumb-Ass”.
It was Abe Lincoln who said something like (I’m paraphrasing), “write your angry letter, get it out of your system, but never send it until at least 24 hours pass and you can re-read it when you have settled down, if you still feel the same way when you are calm – then send it”.
Sometimes it feels like I have to put on ski gloves (so I can’t type), or get up and walk outside to avoid responding immediately to some perceived slight, or whatever it was that got me either too hot, or too silly… and chill.
A practice that I have found helpful is I do write a response, but instead of “send”, I hit “draft” – and for forum posts, I write my response in “Notepad” and save it to my desktop… especially if it is late, and I’m tired.
It’s amazing how much discipline such a silly practice requires – but those anguished moments of “what have I done?!? I’m such a dork!…” are becoming much more rare (at least for this small part of life :-).
Great blog – I really appreciate it,
Agreed. One of the few things I remember from grade school was my 8th grade english teacher Ms McAuliffe telling me that sometimes it’s best to write things and not send/publish them.
(this after a particularly funny incident whereby I wrote an expose-type article for the school newsletter talking about why the principal and one of the female teachers seemed to be spending so much time together off campus when they should be doing their jobs….)… they didn’t publish the article – surprise!
So I learned that writing and publishing can be 2 discrete events. I don’t like having to self-censor, but sometimes it’s in the greater good.
It’s true, in a cathartic kind of way – you can and should release the comments, the pent up actual words, but just don’t mail (or email) it…
I even had sent, very stupid text messages, after very careful thoughts to girls…
Thank you John.