Slacking Off

The other day someone on a committee on which I serve suggested we might eliminate the problem of buried emails by using Slack to communicate.  The problem, it seems to me, is that we have too many ways to communicate and yet lack the means to do so well.  For me email is indicative of the problem.  Email was devised—and I remember its beginnings well—as a means of swift communication.  The only real options before that were writing an actual letter (which I miss) or telephoning.  At that time you might have a cordless phone that you could carry from one room to another but you probably did not.  The phone was relegated to a place on a wall or table and, although I appreciate knowing things quickly, the fact is we got along in those days.  Junk mail was evident at a glance.  You sorted it and life went on.

Now email has taken over life.  I simply can’t keep up with it.  Some time ago Google offered a trifurcated email experience: primary, social, and promotional.  Their algorithms aren’t perfect (numbers seldom are) but I can often ignore large swaths of the promotional page.  That saves time.  Most of the social is dominated by people I don’t know wanting to connect on LinkedIn, or someone mentioning something I should pay attention to on Facebook.  Or perhaps something going on in the neighborhood on Nextdoor.  Primary deserves its name, but I can’t keep up with even that.  You see, I have a full-time job.  It largely consists of reading emails.  If I get a personal email in the morning, chances are it will be buried on the second page by the time the day’s out.  It may never been seen again.  I don’t need another new way to communicate.

The pandemic has introduced the new malady of Zoom exhaustion.  It isn’t unusual for my entire weekend to be taken up with Zoom.  If I don’t have a good part of a Saturday to sort my emails into files things I promised I’d do begin to slip.  I don’t see that email—the one that serves as a reminder to this addled brain of mine.  If I order something on Amazon I have to follow up on an email asking me to rate the service.  And then, if it’s not sold directly by Amazon, a vendor fishing for a compliment.  That after getting an email to confirm my order and another to tell me it’s been shipped.  No, please don’t subject me to Slack.  Or better yet, send me an email about it.  I’ll get to it eventually, as long as it stays on the first page.

Knowing Everything

Of all the jobs I’ve held, being an editor is the only one where strangers send random emails trying to convince me of God’s reality.  Granted, part of that may be because email is now so common as to be passé among the younger crowd.  When I myself was younger it was still just catching on.  Still, part of these strange emails is likely based on the evangelical compulsion to make others see things their way.  Someone who edits biblical studies books might seem like a good target.  I got another such email just last week, and as always, I wondered over it.  What kinds of assumptions must random strangers make about biblical studies specialists?  One of these assumptions, it’s clear, is that they suppose we are atheists.  They know this without even asking.

Technology has made such blindsiding communication easier.  It didn’t invent it, though.  It took a lot more effort to write up a letter, address it, buy a stamp, and mail it than it does to sit down at a keyboard, click, and they start proselytizing away.  In my earlier days, in other incarnations of a career, I received unexpected missives from time-to-time.  And certainly as a seminary professor you had students who had already figured everything out by the time they’d gotten to matriculation.  Many of them were coming to seminary to teach rather than to learn.  Such can be the arrogance of faith.  I fear that many of them graduated with their biases intact.  Education, perhaps, doesn’t work for everyone.

Photo credit: NASA

Having it all figured out is something many of us strive for.  We want things to make sense.  We want our spirituality to fit into this increasingly materialistic world.  Some of us go to seminary and/or graduate school to help us make sense of things.  We encounter minds further along the journey than our own, and, if we’re open, we learn from them.  For me, it’s difficult to understand how education isn’t always a humbling experience.  Oh, I get emails from academics who think they’ve figured it all out as well.  Such communications always make me sad.  The human enterprise, such as it is, has spanned millennia and true progress has only been made when people were humble enough to admit that they didn’t know everything.  They would eventually invent the internet and email.  Then those who already knew all the answers could send them to strangers to convince them of their own great learning.

Assume Nothing

You know what I’m talking about.

It’s rude.

Disorienting, isn’t it?

One of my greatest bêtes noires is the email that only gives enough information to frustrate or irritate.  I get them all the time, mainly from business-people.  Look, I know you’re busy.  We’re all busy.  A single-sentence email that doesn’t explain anything is rude and exasperating.  One of the reasons, if I might speculate, that I always received very good teaching evaluations boils down to a simple trick: good explaining assumes little on the part of the listener/reader.  When I write an email, for work or for whatever life outside work is called, I explain why I’m emailing and I use common courtesies such as “Dear X,” and “Best wishes.”  They take me all of seconds to type, and they make the receiver, I believe, feel human.

The other day I sent such an email and received a one-sentence response that assumed I knew a lot more about the topic than I did.  It frustrated me so much that I had to write this blog post before going back to it and asking, yet again, that sender explain (in this case) himself.  What was he trying to say?  Who was he, even?  I’d been asked to contact him by someone else.  I had no idea who he was (I briefly explained who I was in my initial email).  Electronic communication, IMHO, even if brief, need not be rude.  If we’re all that busy maybe it’s time to step back and consider that life’s too short for generating hurt feelings and generating negativity.  Emails without niceties are rude.

Of course, there are people you know well and that you contact frequently.  I still try always to give them the courtesy of opening, body, and closing.  I grew up in the generation of letter writing.  One thing even businesses knew in those days was that rude behavior lost you customers and/or clients.  Now in Generation Text rudely apocopated emails are standard and I have to wonder if anyone’s done a study on how much business money is wasted on the time it takes to recover from receiving a rude email.  The writer may not be intending to be rude.  Many of us were taught growing up that a “please,” “thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” went a long, long way in avoiding hurt feelings.  Go ahead and call me a snowflake.  But remember, it’s December.  So I’ve just had to spend a quarter-hour of my busy day writing this rant before responding to an email that made me mad by its brevity.  I’m not a texter, and I think I’m discovering why.


Full sentences.  They’re underrated.  If, like me, you receive many tersely-worded emails—an inevitable result of the txt generation—you make know that disoriented feeling of not knowing what’s being said.  Sure, in caveman grunt style, you get the gist, but what of the tone, the context, or the art of polite human conversation?  Some colleagues think me quaint for beginning each email with a greeting, followed by a body, and a closing.  I try to articulate the purpose of my communication using full sentences, often explaining why I’m asking.  Sometimes I ask questions.  Sometimes multiple questions.  When I get an answer answer stating just “Yes” am I to assume that’s to all of the questions?  What if one of them didn’t accept a “yes or no” answer?

Scientists often suggest that it’s our ability to communicate vocally that set us on a different evolutionary track from other animals.  Our large brains, we’re told, were to accommodate the complexities of speech and the abstract thought that followed it.  Seems a pity that now that we communicate constantly we seem to have lost the ability.  Well, not so much lost it as have allowed ourselves to be completely distracted.  I get busyness.  There are times when new emails arrive every few seconds and everyone wants an answer.  At those times I try to envision the half glasses and green eyeshades of a telegraph operator.  Dots and dashes and a good deal of waiting and still business got done.  And I wonder what this cryptic email before me, not even a full sentence, was meant to convey.

Cave-dwellers, I imagine, had some pretty vital information to communicate.  Things like, “I just saw a cave-bear go in there, I’d avoid that place if I were you,” or “Do you think that saber-tooth cat looks hungry?”  The more precision they could put on their grunts the better advantage they would have.  Syntax wasn’t invented for the fun of it.  And yet, here we are.  No time.  Full sentences might serve to avoid confusion and mistakes.  None of us would have these jobs had we not the ability to communicate.  Would you apply for a job using anything less than full sentences?  In our rush to be more efficient we create situations where more information will be required further down the line.  A pity.  If we’d only take the time.  You know.

Just the Fax

Like most people I have a cell phone.  If I use it to take a picture, I can send that photo any number of places with a tap, swipe, and tap.  It works that way with scanned documents as well.  Using a hand-held phone, I can scan important papers, convert them to PDFs, and send them via email, text, “AirDrop” (whatever that is), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—you name it.  Except fax.  That I cannot do.  The other day a company wanted me to send them a document by fax.  Within seconds I had scanned it with my phone and was ready to send it, but instead experienced electronic constipation.  The company had no email; it had to come by fax.

Now, like most reasonably modern people, we have no fax machine at home.  We still have some in the office in New York, but they are clunky, noisy, and seldom actually work.  The technology to receive documents has improved beyond the photostatic smear that facsimiles represent.  I worked for a company where the warehouse insisted on orders by fax.  You’d fax them the order and wait for the phone to ring.  They couldn’t read the fax and you had to tell them what it said.  Well, this particular company I was dealing with wanted a fax.  I downloaded two or three “free” fax apps.  They suspiciously wanted my credit card info.  Besides, if you send more than one page they wanted at least ten bucks for a “package” deal.  I had to send a three-page document.  I checked to see if my laptop could do it.  The manufacturer’s website said it could, but the menu option it told me about didn’t appear.  Who insists on faxes any more?

This is the dilemma of mixed technologies.  It’s like those movies where the streets of some exotic city are filled with rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.  The fax, in this analogy, is the pedestrian.  My mother doesn’t have email, let alone the capability to text (or fax).  Ours is a telephone relationship.  Yet in my hand I hold a device that can send this document anywhere in the world with a tap, swipe, and tap.  I recall my first trip to Jerusalem where hand-drawn carts, cars, and yes, camels, shared the streets.  This was in the days before the internet.  To contact home even by telephone was cumbersome and costly.  Yet somehow we survived.  I’d arranged the trip utilizing a travel agency and funded it by a letter-writing campaign.  The Ektachrome slides I took are now a pain to look at because technology has so improved our lives.  Unless, of course, you need to send a fax.  Delivery by camel can at least be arranged via the internet.

Get Me Jesus on the Line

The letter is the greatest casualty of the internet. I sometimes obsess about how little time people put into their emails, often coming across as gruff or short. I always start mine with a greeting and end them with a closing followed by my name. Of course, I’m from an older generation where communication was initiated with respect. Getting an actual letter is now, however, occasion for great wonder. A friend recently mailed me a couple of fascinating articles from the Prescott Journal, a Wisconsin newspaper. Dated to 1868, the articles actually post-date Nashotah House, but still count as when Wisconsin was rather more pioneer than Pioneer territory. Both articles involve what might be termed “scams” today. Newspapers in the nineteenth century were notorious for sometimes perpetrating hoaxes, and at other times falling victim to them. Still, as the only sources we have for some of these delightful tales, it is difficult to check them out beyond the fact of noting that the amazing stories have been subsequently forgotten.

One of the stories was wired in from San Francisco, the article claims. A certain F. Wilson was applying for copyright on a letter he acquired near Iconium, written by Jesus. As my friend noted in her letter, this is perhaps the earliest case of a rock inscribed “turn me over,” promising some kind of reward. Wilson claimed to have found, under a large (implied) rock, a letter written by Jesus. The rock could not be turned, despite reading “Blessed is he that shall turn me over,” even by a group of men. Then, according to folkloristic protocol, a small child turned it unaided. The letter underneath, although written by Jesus, was signed by the angel Gabriel. The letter contained the ten commandments, a note from Jesus answering a missive from King Abrus, an account of Jesus’ miracles, and a description of his person. The story doesn’t tell if the copyright application was successful.

Newspapers were a form of entertainment a couple of centuries ago. Of course, some four decades earlier than this story Joseph Smith had claimed to have found documents to which he was led by the angel Moroni. He published them and, although lynched some 24 years earlier, had nevertheless done pretty well for himself, as his followers would continue to do. Why not cash in on the new religion craze? After all, this was California, and even in the woods of Wisconsin some religious zealots had started an institution that would grow strong enough to displace dreams and livelihoods. What struck me most reading this story was just how little things have changed. Outlandish religious claims are still credulously accepted by the gullible. And the web encompasses the entire world. This story though, must be true, because it came to me in that most magical of forms—an actual letter.

"Don't forget to look for my letter!"

“Don’t forget to look for my letter!”