E-mails are from Mars, Letters are from Venus

Michael Glantz
14 August 2002

I have to tell you up front that I have not read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. I have, however, heard lots about it from my women friends. In brief (as I understand it), the book suggests that men are different from women in the way they deal with life and with others. Women are, in general, more sensitive than men toward the feelings of others. Men are, in general, more interested in information, while women are more interested in context. I am not sure whether the analogy will hold for the comparison of emails to letters - but now that I have your attention, I would like to give it a try.

Emails are impersonal. No matter how hard one tries, transmitting warm and emotional thoughts by way of email is a difficult task. The pressure of time, the need to spell check, the pressure to type in a correct representation of one's thoughts, the pressure to answer other emails, typing with two or three fingers in front of a 15- or 17-inch monitor - all these factors lead to an impersonal communication. An email also lacks a personal signature.

Letters, on the other hand, convey a much higher level of sincerity. There is little room for correction, unless a draft is first written and then a clean copy is made. People writing letters on paper must think through what they want to say, thought by thought, sentence by sentence, before it is written down. The letter-writer must go to the trouble of putting the letter in the mail. For centuries, writing on papyrus, animal skins, or parchment has been the preferred way to communicate. By analogy, writing on stone or clay tablets is, to me, more like writing down one's thoughts in email.

With written letters, there is a tendency to rethink what has been said and therefore there is a delay in sending them - a safety period, so to speak. With emails, the tendency is to fire them off, once they have been written. One may not actually want to take the time to modify (or mitigate) his or her first thoughts. And it is so easy to hit the "send" button. Not only that, but the sender does not have to wait several days before the recipient receive the message, and wait several more days for a reply. With emails, sending and receiving messages can take place in real time, and then often do. What was not clear in the first message can perhaps be cleared up on a second or third email.

The writer of an email is also stripped of the trouble that the letter-writer must go through in order to mail a letter: address an envelope, find a stamp (remembering which is the latest stamp with the correct price on it - I don't know what they currently cost), and then remember to get the letter into a mailbox.

It is important to be aware of the differences between emails and hard-copy letters. They are not the same. While they do convey information from one person to another, they can be very different in the depth of thought that goes into them. The level of sensitivity varies, with email tending to be less sensitive, often incomplete thoughts that can mislead or provoke the recipient. I have actually witnessed a situation in which email correspondence between people in the same office went on a downward spiral, as one misleading statement led to an equally insensitive response, and so forth, until both parties ended up completely estranged, with no further communication possible between them.

I suggest that, when writing an email, we take the time to go back and read it through and think about its content, and more importantly, its tone before sending. Try to put ourselves in the place of the recipient. This would lend a little "Venus" to our emails and mitigate their "Mars" aspect.

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