At a breakfast meeting in one of Budapest's older, more established restaurants during the week, I was surprised to see a notice on the table asking guests to refrain from using laptops in the restaurant after 7pm. No reason given. Just a polite request followed with a 'Thank you for your understanding.'
Had I not read Jovan Kurbalija's recent post asking us whether we are e-polite, I may not have given this much thought. But fresh in my mind was the idea of how the Internet is changing our behaviour. We would never ignore someone standing at our desk with a question and yet we find it perfectly acceptable to ignore an e-mail from that same person with that same question.
I respond to e-mails sent to me and me alone almost immediately (if I'm online). I see those as direct questions, as if the sender were standing at my desk. Those e-mails into which I'm copied, I see as group questions were I can respond at my own pace. The question has been posed to a group, and were we all sitting in the one room, someone else would no doubt answer first. They don't have the same sense of immediacy. Those e-mails whose body text mentions my name against an action are again direct questions that deserve a quick response. Those that ask no question at all are like comments floating in the air that might be snagged or let loose, depending on my mood.
Jovan concentrated on the responder - yet politeness is a two-way street. Would we randomly include ten people in a real-time conversation and expect each to answer in turn? Perhaps, if we were playing some party game at a dinner table. Would we direct a question at one person and then repeat what we've said to others just so that they can keep abreast of where we are? I've been in plenty of real-life conversations where I ask 'why are you telling me this?' - and unfortunately, have been the recipient of copious e-mails that leave me asking the same question. Similarly I've found myself saying 'so what do you want me to do about [whatever it is you're telling me?] but even more worrying, I say it more often when I'm wading through my inbox.
We would do well to remember that in essence, e-mails are conversations. We need to think more about whom we engage. We need to be clearer about why we're engaging them. And we need to be lot smarter about composing our 'ask'.
But back to my restaurant and the laptop - and I can't help put make the comparison between restaurant and bar signs that state 'No children on the premises after 7pm'. Could it be that our laptops and mobile devices are replacing our children? Are we spending more time with them than we do with our offspring? Are we more focused when we're online than when we're in real-time conversation? Or was this request a result of a waiter spilling soup on an iPad? One has to wonder.