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Memo to Self

 

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 speech.

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 all three.

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? ; )

—Jo Page

jopage@graceniska.org


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