Monday, April 23, 2007

Hey, buddy, read this @$!#!% blog

Over the weekend, one of the rudest business emails I have ever received landed in my inbox.

The writer -- I won't identify the gentleman here -- chastised me for having the "gall" to not acknowledge an email he sent me in response to some questions I had emailed him. He accused me of being "too big to even take a minute" to thank him for the "damn response" he provided to my inquiries.

He then demanded that I provide him the contact information for the editor at the publication for which I wrote the article. In closing, this person wrote: "It is 'journalists' like you who aren't worth my time!"

Would this guy have spoken to me over the phone or face-to-face in that tone or manner? Doubtful. But an email to someone you've never met or never spoken to before, as is the case here, seems to give some people carte blanche to be as unfriendly and distasteful as they'd like.

Unfortunately, email gives impolite people a mask to hide behind.

Fortunately, we've got help to unmask this problem. Books instructing us on proper email etiquette are popping up almost as fast as spam. One of them, "The Bliss or 'Diss' Connection: Email Etiquette for the Business Professional," is by communications expert Cherie Kerr.

"Sadly, I think many people tend to weaken their business relationships rather than strengthen them with the use of email," Kerr says. "Introducing decorum and protocol is what we have needed for some time." Indeed, the author of the missive I got over the weekend not only has weakened the potential for a business relationship with me, he has destroyed it.

Not long after I was sent the nasty email, I bought a new book at Barnes & Noble called "Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home," by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. Aside from authoring this book, the two scribes even are soliciting stories online about bad emails you've seen or heard about.

The email I got committed one of Shipley's and Schwalbe's "Eight Deadly Sins of Email" by insulting me so much that I figuratively had to get up from my desk. One piece of advice in their book is relevant in this situation: "When it comes to angry emails, ask yourself before hitting the Send key: Would you deliver the same message, in the same words, if you were within punching distance?" In this instance, my correspondent's answer should have been "no."

For the record, I did apologize by email for not having properly thanked this gentleman for his time. Overall, I addressed his grievances while also defending myself. And I did offer a way to contact my editor.

He mentioned in the email that he didn't know me from Adam. Well, the way he treated me was the way you'd expect a parent to scold an unruly child. By the way, I am not a child. I am a journalist with more than 20 years of experience who has achieved success, in part, by not dousing phone calls, letters or emails with verbal vinegar.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some nice, professional emails to write.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The eyes have it

Poker players are masters at picking up on wordless cues. A slight nod of the head. A barely noticeable change in facial expression. A subtle, nervous tap of the finger on the poker table.

Every day, we communicate more with what we do not say or write than what we do say or write. How many times has a roll of the eyes by a co-worker, partner or child spoken volumes about what that person is thinking or feeling?

This week, judge Simon Cowell of "American Idol" learned the hard way about how a simple eye roll can send the wrong message. While a contestant on stage was paying his respects to the Virginia Tech victims, Cowell was conversing quietly with judge Paul Abdul and rolled his eyes. Many viewers thought Cowell was being disrespectful to the victims. But as Cowell explained on camera the next night, he wasn't rolling his eyes about the contestant's short speech on Virginia Tech. Cowell says he didn't even hear the contestant's words. Rather, Cowell says he was rolling his eyes about the contestant's performance.

Researcher Albert Mahrabian explains that words account for just 7 percent of a message, while tone of voice accounts for 38 percent and body language accounts for 55 percent, according to Wikipedia. As Wikipedia defines it, nonverbal communication can be conveyed through gestures; posture; facial expressions; eye contact; symbols; speech patterns such as voice quality; and even through "object" communication such as clothing, hairstyles and architecture.

Today, heading south on MoPac here in Austin, I used a little nonverbal communication of my own. Yes, right there on the highway. A motorist in a big pickup truck was tailing me a little too closely, so I peered over my sunglasses and gave him a brief "look." Within seconds, he backed off my bumper. Sometimes, it's tempting to use a finger-based form of nonverbal communication. But I figured that gesture wouldn't serve me well, especially since his truck was much larger than my relatively tiny Toyota.

Now, if we could just get more motorists to practice nonverbal communication, instead of clogging traffic by communicating via voice and text on their cell phones and PDAs. That would produce a great form of nonverbal communication -- a smile.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

At a loss for words

As chatty as I can be, sometimes I am practically left speechless. That was the case today, when I found out a friend has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. My friend's phone call to convey the news stunned me; here I was, driving on a rain-slick highway in Austin, when my friend's relatively calm voice came through the cell phone, informing me of this tragic turn of events.

In situations like this, it's hard to figure out precisely what to say. Of course, I expressed how sorry I was to learn of this life-altering occurrence. I offered support. But I also struggled to come up with the "right" things to say. At one point, I told my friend: "I will be in your thoughts." What I meant to say was this: "You will be in my thoughts." The proper words simply escaped me.

A similar circumstance befell someone I know who has a relative who's coping with several medical maladies. "I cannot think of one thing to say ... that would make a difference," the healthier relative said.

No one hands you a manual to instruct you on how to respond in such cases. Maybe one should be written. But how do you fill a book with words that are so hard to come by? Perhaps "I love you" and "I care about you" and "I'm here for you" and "I'm sorry" are about the only words we need at are disposal when we're grasping for language to help ease this kind of pain.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A horrible tragedy

It was with horror that I learned of the massacre at Virginia Tech that has claimed more than 30 lives. It's the most unreal, sad tragedy ever at a college or university campus in the United States.

Unlike the University of Texas tragedy in 1966 or the Kent State tragedy in 1970, this one occurred in an age during which news delivery is instantaneous. My first word of the Virginia Tech massacre came this morning when I logged onto my email service. A headline broke the news to me.

Just a little while ago, I switched on the TV to learn more about the Virginia Tech violence. CNN and Fox, among other networks, are feeding us constant coverage of the massacre. Back in the days of the UT and Kent State shootings, news filtered to the masses in a considerably slower manner; we typically had to wait till the evening news or the morning papers to get the full story. Now, on networks such as CNN and Fox, we're seeing multiple images of and hearing multiple reports about the Virginia Tech rampage -- from professional and amateur reporters.

Such rapid distribution of news is double-edged. We certainly receive information with swift speed. But we also receive information that can be incomplete or downright inaccurate. This afternoon, for instance, it was unclear who the shooter was, how many people had been killed and how many people had been injured.

To be sure, we can't expect all the concrete details to spill forth right away. Nonetheless, we also need to read, watch and listen to news about the Virginia Tech massacre and other such incidents with skeptical eyes and ears.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Good riddance, Don Imus

Welcome to my first post on The Word on Words. My hope is that you'll be entertained and enlightened -- and perhaps incensed -- by my take on the world of communications...

Well, I can't say that I was ever a big fan of shock jock Don Imus. Hard to be when you never listen(ed) to his radio show or watch(ed) his TV show. After he made a fool of himself on the air with his remarks regarding the Rutgers University women's basketball team, CBS and MSNBC did the right thing by pulling the plug on this bozo.

It's one thing to express your constitutionally protected opinions. It's quite another to trash an entire group of innocent women in one fell swoop.

As a journalist, I'm all for upholding the First Amendment right to free speech. But speech isn't so free when it comes at the expense of insulting a group of people who did nothing to deserve such a mini-tirade.

Mr. Shock Jock shouldn't be shocked that CBS and MSNBC yanked him from the airwaves. In the end, Imus choked on his own vile words. Let this be a lesson to other talking heads on radio and TV: Measure your words carefully, or you may lose your electronic soapbox.

Until next time...