The other day our teacher at the technical writing class announced "Today we are going to talk about using Email as an excellent means of communication". I thought 'here it comes, at last I will know more about this'. Like many people in India, I was a latecomer to Email, that too only when it was forced upon me. My father was ill after a stroke and I had to often correspond with my sister in the United States. I noticed that her Emails always began with 'Sunder'. Never was it 'Dear Sunder'. Her replies to my long and meandering Emails were often short and sometimes sounded even curt. I was concerned a bit in the beginning. I still am although I have got used to it a little. Like every communication tool Email came armed with a danger to ruin even our most intimate relationships forever.
At first, when we began our affair with Email, it was wonderful. We were thrilled. Email brought everyone closer, built new friendships and even strengthened existing ones. That was before we took three weeks to answer an Email from a friend who expected a response that morning. That was before many of our school alumni tracked us down to relate all over again. That was before we realized that Email has its own set of rules: we found that Email was a mystery that the user finds out the hard way. The possibility to offend and be offended always looms large over you. There is no Mr. Perfect to explain your Email manners.
Because Email makes it possible to receive an immediate reply, we always expect one. Email expands silence, makes it go faster. A month in Email time feels like twenty years. You could safely wait two months to answer a letter or a few days to return a phone call. But with Email you demand an answer right now. The sad irony is if when you are the one who takes three weeks to answer an Email - there is no problem then. It is only when the person at the other end fails to reply to your Emails within hours that you get your pressure up. Again, who wants an Email friend who goes on and on for pages? And who answers your own verbal diarrhea on paper with just a simple okay?
A polite Email includes and should include several questions if we all had our way. "How are you?", "How was Vinny today?", "What are you doing this time for Diwali?". If your friend or relative fails to respond to such questions, you wonder if he or she has actually read your message. But the sad part is that you are least interested in your friend's Diwali. This is a typical Email mystery, you ask questions whose answers you really don't want. You then get offended when your own questions are left ignored.
As it was for my sister, 'Dear' seems a bit old fashioned on the Net. But when we omit an opening salutation it does sound like picking the phone up and keep talking without saying the beginning 'Hello'. Again, signing off an Email without the usual 'sincerely' or 'faithfully' is like putting the phone down without even a goodbye.
The confusion of it all makes you want to long for the days when 'Jane Austen' wrote her 'Pride and Prejudice' with her feather pen and inkpot.