The Manners Maven

Manners_HeaderH. Kram Nevets here with my first episode of “The Manners Maven.” Today, I will opine on two common communication practices that violate the norms of both human courtesy and common sense. In most cases, these practices also reduce communication effectiveness and efficiency. This will be the first of a short series.

Technology is wonderful. One of its benefits is that it arms us with a plethora of communications media. In many ways, these media have improved our ability to share information back and forth between human beings. Notice that there are four components to this communication activity.

  • Share: the content does not reside with a single human being.
  • Information: the content has some practical importance that justifies sharing.
  • Back and forth: there is an implied interactivity, meaning a sender and a receiver, and most likely a responder.
  • Human beings: human beings (and nothing else) are the termini of the activity.

Further, there are two essential forms of communication activity. The first is informational: I have content that you need to know which does not require your response. The second is interactive: You have content that I need from you or that we need to discuss together. These basic precepts of communication are pretty fundamental. In fact, they are so fundamental that it seems almost inconceivable that our new communications media could make it complicated. The good news is that these media are not responsible for this complexity. People are responsible, most often in the form of bad practices. Let us take a look.

CC does NOT stand for “Create Chaos”
Email has been with us for a long time, and it confuses me why after more than two decades in regular use we still do not know how to use the medium appropriately. In particular, the CC function seems beyond the grasp of so many people in spite of the fact that it is probably the single most useful aspect of email.

For those of you not old enough to remember, CC stands for “carbon copy.” This derives from a time before computers when memos or letters were inscribed on actual pieces of paper using a device called a typewriter. In order to make multiple copies without having to re-type the memo several times (or resort to mimeograph), there was a practice whereby the typist would insert carbon paper between sheets of paper so that when the typewriter key contacted the top sheet, imprints would be made on the lower sheets as a result of the impact. This was true analog copying. The problem, of course, was that each subsequent copy lost fidelity such that one could only make a few such carbon copies of the original before they would become unreadable.

So imagine what an improvement email was when it first emerged. Not only could one interactively edit the message content, but one could also include any number of individuals in the communication. But that is where the problem lies. Released from the constraints on how many people can be “copied,” pandemonium reins. The abuse of CC falls into two extremes: “copy everyone” and “copy no one.”

The practitioners of “copy everyone” take the viewpoint that CC stands for “Cover (my/our) Cheeks.” So inevitably, instead of including the two other people to whom the message pertains in the email string, the miscreant copies those two along with everyone’s bosses, their bosses’ bosses, the help desk, security, Clyde in Accounting (because Clyde needs to be copied on everything), and Aunt Lizzie just because. So not only do we end up with a plethora of individuals sorting through truck loads of irrelevant email, inevitably someone totally tangential to the issue will chime in and create additional churn. This practice wastes people’s time and reduces efficiency. Consider the following email exchange. Why would a Vice President, Clyde, or any of the other ten unnecessary recipients need to follow it?

TO Moe: I found the issue. A variable was too short for one of the values.
TO Larry: Which procedure?
TO Moe: SP_UpdateDailySales.
TO Larry: Were the tables okay?
TO Moe: Yes, they all had the correct length, same as the source table.
TO Larry: Glad it was minor.
TO Moe: Same here. The fix will go live this afternoon.
TO Larry: Great. Thanks.

The issue might be important, but does anyone other than Moe and Larry really have the time or need to follow it at this level of detail? If there were twelve people on the distribution in addition to those two, then there were 96 unnecessary interruptions to the workday. There is a cost associated with that which mounts up quickly. Much more efficient would have been a status email from Larry once the issue had been resolved and the deployment confirmed.

The practitioners of “copy no one” interpret CC as meaning “Cursory Consciousness.” This individual routinely fails to notice that there are three (or more) active participants in the conversation and therefore only answers the one who just emailed. Unless the recipient is careful and responds using CC to include the now missing participants, the email string becomes divided. Divided email strings result in all manner of mayhem and misunderstanding.

I grant that the use of CC is not always straightforward, so here is a little piece of CC trivia you may need to know someday. If you are part of any public body (e.g., City Council, Arts Commission, School Board), you should never use CC (or reply all) with all your fellow members. By law, meetings of such bodies must be public meetings, with the place and time announced publically and in advance. Use of CC constitutes a legal quorum of your membership, and therefore an illegal meeting of the body. Interesting, no?


YOUR procrastination is not MY emergency
We are all wired in a variety of ways today. We have computers (email, chat), phones (voice, text), and more. In general, these devices are turned on and online most of the time. Consequently, at least in the business world, there is no reason for non-communication.

Let me make a very clear distinction, however, between non-communication and non-instant communication. There are two schools of thought on this. The first is that, because there are so many instant communication media, all communication should be instant. This same school of thought takes the viewpoint that multi-taskers are the most efficient workers.

I subscribe to the second school, which takes the viewpoint that multitasking is not only inefficient but also harmful. Recent studies suggest this. I try (not always successfully) to set aside several times each day for reviewing email and returning messages instead of monitoring them as they come in. When I have my head down writing or coding or working on a project, I want to have disruptive media turned off. The only exception is when I am expecting something timely or critical. The key, though, is to set aside regular break times to check messages. The last thing I want to do is hold someone up who needs a critical response from me.

Now enter Penny Procrastinator. Penny does neither.  She neither responds in the millisecond nor does she select key times throughout the day to respond to urgent or key requests. In fact, Penny waits to respond until the urgent becomes virtually impossible. This is not to say that she is offline. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sporadically throughout the day she will pop off urgent (if incomplete) requests to people throughout the enterprise.   Any attempts to receive clarification, though, are met with galactic silence. I usually get my call from Penny about 5:45 in the afternoon. Sometimes, it is later than that.

STEVE: Hello?
PENNY: Steven. Penny. Where are you?
STEVE: I’m at a restaurant having dinner with my wife. It’s 6:45 in the evening. It’s our wedding anniversary.
PENNY: I don’t see the promotions analysis for the fall season on my desk.
STEVE: Right. Didn’t you read my emails?
PENNY: No. I’ve been in meetings all day.
STEVE: Penny, I sent you an email yesterday evening asking when they were due and whether you wanted me to use the marketing data again or go back to using the sales data. Either way, it takes most of a day to complete the reports. I sent the email again at 8:00 this morning, an hour before your first meeting. I sent it again before noon. I even tried to find you in your office. And by the way, your voice mail is full on both your office line and your cell phone.
PENNY: Steven, I receive hundreds of emails every day. I have to focus on the important ones, like making certain that Larry was on top of yesterday’s computer glitch.
STEVE: As opposed to taking 30 seconds to make certain I had what I needed for your boss’ analysis?
PENNY: You aren’t from IT so I didn’t think you needed to be micromanaged. This needs to be on the CFO’s desk by 8:00 tomorrow morning. You are going to have to cut your evening short and get this to me in the next four hours. That way I can review it tonight and do any fluffing and folding I need to in the morning. Tonight, Steven. [click]

At this point, of course, our hapless hero finds himself between Scylla and Charybdis. If he doesn’t get Penny’s report to her, it could cost him his job. On the other hand, the political capital it is going to cost him in his marriage for doing so is likely to be enormous. I am not going to speculate on how Steven decided. Notice also that Penny still did not answer his question about the data source.

We all have a Penny or two in our lives. If your Penny is your boss, I am sorry for you. There is not much you can do but try. If your Penny is a colleague or a direct report, you have much more control in managing the situation. You probably have the ability to set boundaries for yourself and demonstrate consequences when those boundaries are transgressed.

If you are a Penny, shame on you. If you are self-aware enough to recognize that you are a Penny, double shame. There are only two words I can say to you. “Stop it.” No, you had better make that three words. “Stop it now!”


I hope you have enjoyed this first edition of The Manners Maven. Stay tuned for my next assault on the antisocial aspects of technology, entitled Another Manners Maven, coming in about a fortnight.


Extend the conversation! Which technological bad manners peeve you the most? Do you think technology has simplified our lives or made them more complex?


6 thoughts on “The Manners Maven

    • bimuse says:

      …and yet, “Reply All” is itself a double-edged sword. If there are twenty unnecessary people on CC, do you reply all and perpetuate the mayhem? Conversely, if you eliminate the dross you fracture the chain. Ugh!

  1. Caroline Stuckey says:

    I often feel trapped (sadly, self imposed) in that instant gratification web. You have an uncanny way of reminding those willing to listen (or read) that redefining those boundaries are crucial to maintaining success in a healthy, productive way.

    • bimuse says:

      Thank you for your thoughts, Caroline. I absolutely understand the allure of the instant gratification. It is why more and more I am trying to use the Pomodoro Technique® to increase my productivity. Closing email during the short work sessions keeps me focused, but then I can run an eyeball over mail during breaks.

  2. Ruth Fisher says:

    If Penny is your boss, it’s time to move on. It’s just not worth the stress and aggravation. Been there. Done that.

    On another note, I had a colleague who always filled in the Subject bar with “Read Me,” and his list of addressees was extensive. Consequently, I would end up with dozens of emails in my Inbox, each containing different content, all with the same Subject: Read Me.

    • bimuse says:

      I would have to agree with you, Ruth, that having Penny for one’s boss is a no brainer for deciding to move on. As to your Read Me example, that is downright insidious! I wonder if I can work that one into one of the follow-on articles? Hmmm…I wonder.

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