I was the advertising manager at a national quilting magazine
in Denver long before there was e-mail. I had been hired by
the founder, Mrs. L., a woman of Midwestern reserve and laconic
As advertising manager, she told me in the initial interview,
I would sell all ad space, do layout and paste-up for graphic
ads, and set the type for classified ads.
I had never been able to hang a picture straight and I knew
nothing about setting type. Plus, I had never sold anything
other than Camp Fire Girl candy.
Mrs. L. told me she wanted me to work on commission.
I didn’t like the sound of this at all. But I was the breadwinner
and this was the only job I had been offered. I asked her
if I could have a straight salary to begin with and switch
to a commission structure after I’d learned the ropes.
She thought for a long, Midwestern moment, pursed her lips
and agreed, offering me a salary just this side of embarrassing.
I must have had ‘desperate’ written all over my face.
I hated the job. Every day when I entered the building I saw
Mrs. L. in her office just opposite the punch clock—she kept
close enough tabs on everyone that the punch clock was a formality.
We’d stiffly nod hello and then I’d go back to the editorial
room off of which I had a small office.
The editorial staff was a group of catty, competitive quilters
who never cursed. I cursed. I’m a New Yorker. I’m afraid I
reflected badly on the state.
But I discovered that there was one aspect of the job that
was satisfying and at which I excelled: I could sell ad space.
I had a real knack for chatting up the regular advertisers
and I was undaunted by making cold calls. In fact, I liked
the cold calls. That’s where the real challenge was.
Ad sales went up and up. By the end of my first year I had
sold a quarter of a million 1980’s dollars in ad space.
I wrote Mrs. L. a memo asking if we could reconsider the commission
structure as we had said we would do when I was hired.
I got a memo back. No.
I wrote another memo.
I got another memo back.
I wrote a memo with figures and percentages.
I got another memo back.
Remember, Mrs. L. and I saw each other every day. It
was a small building and she was always popping up here and
there. At any point either one of us could have said to the
other, “Can we find some time to talk face-to-face?”
But neither one of us wanted to do that. Memos were safer.
If I had to sit down in her office and discuss this inequity
I knew I would either get mad, be obsequious, or cry. Probably
Eventually I wrote a memo to tell her I was leaving.
I guess e-mail is the new memo. I find it easier to conduct
my life via e-mail than via telephone. I figure writing is
more precise, more nuanced, clearer. I’d rather write than
speak. I don’t speak well. I’m a bit of a hermit, maybe, I
don’t know. Anyway, I thought it was the same way for everyone.
Turns out I’m wrong.
Writing about e-mail in the workplace, Daniel Goleman, author
of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships,
says ominously, “New findings have uncovered a design
flaw at the interface where the brain encounters a computer
screen: there are no online channels for the multiple signals
the brain uses to calibrate emotions.”
On the other hand, he says, face-to-face encounters are “information
rich.” “This neural dance creates an instant rapport that
arises from an enormous number of parallel information processors,
all working instantaneously and out of our awareness.”
He goes on to say that the opportunity for misunderstanding
increases exponentially when e-mail replaces face-to-face,
or even phone, conversation. In e-mail, he says, jokes are
perceived as less funny, neutral statements are perceived
as more negative and positive statements as more neutral.
When we send e-mail, Goleman says, “there’s little to nothing
by way of emotional valence to pick up. E-mail lacks those
channels for the implicit meta- messages that, in a conversation,
provide its positive or negative spin.”
What a bummer for us social hermits.
Overall I think my preference for e-mail is a minority opinion.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t get why I prefer
e-mail to phone calls. For them, e-mail lacks nuance, intonations
and non-verbal cues. They decry email as diminishing the importance
of social pleasantries, in-depth conversations and letter-writing.
I champion it because to me it seems to build a wider social
network and it hones forgotten letter-writing skills.
I suppose, though, I am willing to be persuaded that I am
wrong. Science is confirming what my friends (and daughters)
are saying. Maybe that was the problem at the quilting magazine.
After all, all those memos to Mrs. L. never did get me any
money. Still, I wonder—would it have been different if I had
used emoticons? ; )