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E-mail: a blessing and a curse

Updated Friday 7th March 2008

While producing 'E-Mail is Ruining My Life', The Money Programme talked to a number of experts. Here you can watch extended versions of several of the interviews.

E-mail and stress

Professor Cary Cooper talks about our stressful lives and the influence of e-mail on them.

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On the growing concern about work-related stress

If you think about it, a lot of the illnesses in the workplace before were linked to there being heavy manufacturing engineering-based. We’re out of that now, we’re into service based industries. That’s about people. So stress is frequently caused by people, and the relationships between people, and their overload, and the long hours, and how they are treated by colleagues, by customers, and so on. So now we’re in a service based economy affected much more by stress than we would have been 20 or 30 years ago.

What the employers think about stress

I think for some employers, you know, it’s a kind of soft topic, stress. They think it’s a kind of charter for malingerers, “I don’t really want to work hard. I don’t want to work long. I don’t want to do much of this, so I will get stress.” I think that’s really rather sad because I think we will always have malingerers, they’ve been there fifty years ago now, that proportion I think is very small, I think the people who say they are suffering from stress, not just the everyday pressure of stress I think has increased enormously, for a whole variety of reasons. But, and it’s different from the way it used to be twenty or thirty years ago when we had the extended family, we weren’t as mobile, we had the natural social support mechanisms around us to protect us, our aunties, our grandmas, neighbours, three doors down, who acted as natural counsellors to us. We don’t have that, we are highly mobile now, we’re on our own, the primary family unit, and that is problem for quite a lot of people.

Longer working hours

Now let’s go back to the overload. When you are looking at overload, in the old days it used to be snail mail, now we have electronic overload, we are 7/24, we are interfaced by the mobile phone, by blackberrys, by emails, by a whole range of technologies so that we are almost on call all the time. For me email is one of the most kind of pernicious… stressors of our time. Because it was Harold Wilson, I think, in the white heat of technology speech when he said by the year 2000 we will be working 20 hour weeks. Well, we are working longer than we did in 1964, much longer, particularly professional people, even blue collar workers are even though they have contractual things not to, their contractual hours may look short but actually they work long hours because the actually work longer than their contractual hours, most of us do nowadays. E-mail is really difficult because what it does to us, it’s constant, people are demanding an immediacy of response. So, you know you can’t just sit there, that’s one, and not only that, but bosses dump on you, not just bosses, everybody dumps their in-trays on you and you are accumulating this over a period of time.

Reducing our levels of stress

It is the case, I think, that we let e-mails manage us than we manage it. Well first of all, if we only had technologists who try to develop the internet in such a way that we could manage it a lot better and I don’t think we do. On the other hand, we are partly responsible, we are partly responsible because we let it manage us, we respond immediately, that’s the dumb bit. I think what we tend to do is, we tend to meet other people expectations by responding immediately to their emails, because we think it’s like an old fashioned telegram. It’s an electronic telegram, it’s important, we got to respond. Rather than thinking it through and saying, well I’m not going to do that for three or four days. Putting a message on the e-mail saying “I’m away in Los Angeles for a week, don’t even expect a response from me until February 7th”. That’s what we need to do. We need to manage it, we need to shut it off. The other problem, of course, is that we keep it on while we are working and then it pings up and curiosity gets you and you wonder who that is. So that disturbs your train of thought and your work performance that way, what we should do is shut it off and then manage it, rather than let it manage us. And we can do it: it’s partly in our control.

The importance of downtime

You know, if you look at blackberrys and all that technology, I can understand from a business efficiency point of view that you say “yes, isn’t it good that we can be in contact, as an employer, with our employees 7/24”. But we need a lot of downtime as human beings, we need time to reflect about what we are doing. We need time to get on with our job by the way, and not being interfaced constantly by e-mails and that technology. I actually think it’s counter productive, that technology, in the long run. It wouldn’t be if we choose to use it properly, that is to say, if we actually shut it off when we had other things to do, and only from time to time accessed it. That would be fine, but human beings don’t do that. They are very curious about who is contacting them. They need to be socially connected with people they work with, with the office. They won’t control it, the technology will control them, and I think that’s sad. The technology itself is not the problem, by the way, we’re the problem.

 

A double-edged sword

David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, authors of Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, talk about the way e-mail has changed our lives.

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What’s worst, drunk e-mailing or drunk dialing?

Will Schwalbe: Drunk e-mailing is so much worse than drunk dialling, for two reasons; one with drunk dialling there's always the chance that the person won't be there and that you'll chicken out before the answering machine comes on, but when you drunk e-mail as soon as you hit the send key it's gone. And the other thing that makes drunk e-mailing so much worse than drunk dialling is your crazy inappropriate rant or confession of love can be forwarded to, oh, 10 people, 100 people, 1,000 people, a million people. And that's just not going to happen with your drunken phone call.

David Shipley: It's a good reason always to turn your computer off, because if you're really drunk it's harder to turn it on and log back on. So don't keep it on all the time.

Will: Good for the energy too. I mean it's the green, it's the green choice.

When can email be bad?

Will: Yeah I mean a classic really damaging e-mail as most people regard it would be – we came across one that was actually in a court case, and it was “Did we get that illegal stuff about withholding expenses worked out?” So you would think, OK, that's the worst kind of email you can send, and in fact that did I think land someone in jail.

But the type of email that is just maybe too casual or too formal can really be damaging too. An example: a friend of ours toiled and toiled on this huge project and wrote this wonderful email. All this effort went into it, it was just a huge labour. Sent it to her boss, and the boss sent back an email that said “OK”. That was it, “OK”. And this burned this person up so much, she was so upset by this that really months later she wound up leaving her job because she just couldn't get over the “OK". Now was that a sort of callous boss, who really didn't think much of her efforts? Probably not. It was probably just a boss in a hurry who typed out two letters and thought nothing of it.

Has email become the primary form of communication?

Will: Well really email has been accused of killing the letter, as though we lived in this kind of magical world 10 years ago where we all brought out our quill pens and wrote wonderful, long, personal, Shavian style letters to each other.

But in fact what email has killed, thank goodness, is a certain type of useless phone call. And when you think about the number of phone calls we all used to get, particularly at work, to do something as mundane as arrange a lunch, where someone would call you and they'd get your voicemail and you'd call them back and you’d get their voicemail and they'd call you back and they'd miss you entirely. You could spend a whole day.

One of the great things about email is you can just say “Look, meet me at Cipriani at 1 o'clock. Call if there's a problem, otherwise I'll see you there”. One email, it's done. And that's one of the great things about email, it has replaced a certain kind of really annoying phone call.

The readers and the writers

David: The other thing I'd add to that too is that everybody talks about JK Rowling and Harry Potter sort of creating a new generation of readers, and I think that's absolutely right.

But I also think I watch my kids email and I think email has created a whole new generation of writers. I see my children emailing their grandparents across the country on a regular basis. I mean they certainly send more letters than I sent to my grandparents when I was away at summer camp. So I think, you know, we tend to look at the dark side of email and not see the fact that we're seeing people doing a lot of writing at a very early age, and I think that's a wonderful thing.

Think before you send that email

David: The other thing, it's also tremendously useful to ask yourself before you're about to hit that send key, whether or not the email that you're sending is going to make a bit of difference. And at least in my personal experience I find that there are times when I've written emails and I come to the conclusion before I've hit that send key that it's not going to help anyone, it's not going to advance anything, and it really goes into the trash.

You know we have a quote in the book from Bob Geldof, who should be known for a lot of things, but I think we actually adore him for this piece of wisdom. He wrote that “You know, email gives the illusion of progress even when nothing is happening”. And I think anybody who's been in a workplace knows that we're all asked to produce and email is a tangible production. You are actually doing something. You're typing something and you're sending it, but is it having any effect? And it all makes us feel like we're doing something, that we're being very useful. At the end of the day there are many times where it's just not as constructive as we imagine it to be at that moment.

 

The birth of email

Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email, tells us about its inception in the 1970s.

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What is an email?

What is an email? Well, email is used both as the thing that you send and as the system that does it for you. Just messages from one person to another person is the main idea. In some cases your - the other person is a machine of some kind, and you get messages from programmes that are running on certain machines. But mostly it was intended as a way of communicating from one user to another with - in an asynchronous way, so that you didn't have to actually be talking with the person at the time you were communicating.

How was email invented?

The idea was that we had, we had a network at the time, there was the Arpanet, it was a new technology. It was looking for applications that it could assist with and the, one of the obvious things to do with such a network was to transfer files from one machine to another.

And you have to remember that in those days computers were large, very expensive things. The typical costs were measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars and there were very few of them in the world and they needed - they wanted to be shared if possible. So you could share across time zones for example, find a computer that was not yet in use in the early morning on the east coast here and was sitting in the west coast, that kind of, that kind of thing, a time shifting arrangement.

And one of the ideas that occurred to me after reading some other requests for comments was that you could by sending files which are message files from one computer to another you could communicate with another user on that other computer. At the time it was, it was possible to send messages to other users on the same computer, and because these computers were expensive they had many, many users, typically in the hundreds. And so you could send it to a user on the same computer but not on a computer elsewhere, and so my idea was to add that capability by transferring the file that was the message that you were sending to this other user through a file transfer protocol to another computer. And I wrote the programme.

I actually had most of the pieces in place already because I was working on the programme that sent use – messages to users on the same computer, I was working a file transfer protocol and I just put the two together and yeah, yeah.

Well it wasn't called email at the time. Email - the term email - didn't come about until probably three or four years later. But this was in late 1971 as far as I can remember. I don't have any notes from the time but it was about that because of - by working out what else was going on at the time it had to have been about that period of time. And I think it was no more than about four months later, in April 1972, that the first proposals for an actual email protocol to allow the transmission of email from user to user came about. So it was adopted very quickly.

Why did you use the @ sign?

Well the @ sign was an obvious choice to me anyway because what I was looking for was a character that I could put between the name, or the login name of a person, and the name of the computer that he was on. And if you look at the keyboard there was all kinds of punctuation marks and all of them are good candidates. None of the letters or the digits or few of other characters which were actually in use for login names were suitable but the, there are several punctuation marks, but the @ sign, at least in English, means at. It's a preposition, it tells - it designates - where this person is in some sense, and so it was kind of an obvious choice.

What was written in the first ever email?

Everybody wants to know what the content of the first email was and it's kind of embarrassing, because I can't tell you what it was.

You have to understand that at first this programme didn't work. I was working on it, I was debugging it. And so there were a lot of test messages that I typed in with my hands and tried to type something quick and yep, every once in a while you get bored with that, so you try to make something up. And you know I think I probably typed a few words from the - Lincoln's Gettysburg address a couple of times, but mostly it was just 'testing 1, 2, 3, 4' and when that first message actually got through to the other side I have no idea which one it actually was.

I've suggested to some that I dragged my finger across the top row of keys on the keyboard and came out with 'qwertyuiop'. Possibly that was it, it might have been testing, I don't really know.

What is the future for email?

I don't know. Email has been around for a long time. I think it serves a very - it has a niche. It has its place. And if it changes at all I suspect that it will become integrated more thoroughly with other modes of communication. So that, for example one might say “I need to send, I need to talk with X” and if your instant messaging system says well X is not available, that rather than having said “Oh I have to use my email programme instead”, it'll be integrated in some way with that kind of a capability, so you'll say “I want to sent this to X” and it turns round and says that X is not (up) you edit it a little bit because it's not appropriate in the - a question that's appropriate for instant message, for an instant message for example would not necessarily be appropriate for an email. You want to provide more context, more information so that you can get a more complete answer on, on a delayed basis. Whereas otherwise you say “Hey, how are ya?” and you know, after that you ask the real question. You wouldn't - you wouldn't do that with email. So the form of the question is different in the two situations but having an integrated way of migrating from one to the other I think is what we'll see.

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