I first noticed it when Porter was working with coworkers from India, part of the great outsourcing/offshoring boom in the early part of this century. He had discovered that he could never make more than one point in an e-mail. If he asked two questions or brought up two subjects—let alone a list of several—his correspondent would respond to one of them, usually either the first or the last, and completely ignore the rest. At the time, I blamed it on the language barrier.

Now I don't know what say, because it happens all the time, with people for whom English is as native as language can get. Over and over again people seem to be missing everything after the first paragraph of an e-mail.

Could it be a Twitter Effect, and people just can't take in more than 140 characters at a time? Have our attention spans degenerated so drastically? Are we perhaps just so busy, hurried, and harried, trying to accomplish too much in too little time, that we can't take time to read carefully? I think of doctors, nurses, teachers, and others who complain that they are so rushed they can no longer do their jobs properly. It may be those in the helping professions who feel it first and foremost, but it's no doubt true of us all.

Should we, perhaps, call ourselves a post-literate society? Once upon a time, not that long ago, literacy was not taken for granted. It wasn't until 1940 that the U.S. Federal Census stopped asking people if they could read and write.  But thereafter, every schoolchild was expected to learn to read and to write, and libraries flourished.

Now, I'm not so sure. Schools still teach reading and writing, but are we now creating graduates who can read, but don't? So many people never touch a book after leaving school! We've gone from reading solid, well-written, even scholarly books, to "beach reads," to newspapers and magazines, to USA Today, to blogs, to Facebook and Twitter, click-click-click. From long, newsy letters to e-mails to Instagram and Snapchat.

Certainly, there have been gains with each step. But we've also lost something important. I know people who can read very well, but have no patience with an e-mail that is longer than a few sentences. At least I don't need to worry about offending anyone with this blog post—the guilty won't get this far. :)

Ah well, one must move with the times. Pardon me while I go snip an e-mail into bite-sized fragments.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, August 22, 2018 at 1:29 pm | Edit
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Elsewhere, I've heard people whining that they wish people would quit combining topics in a single message. They strongly advise writing multiple e-mails if you have more than one topic.

Posted by Peter V on Wednesday, August 22, 2018 at 4:41 pm

Do you have any idea why, Peter? Why would someone want multiple e-mails to deal with instead of just one? Is it so they can organize them by subject? Or deal with them piecemeal, and have the satisfaction of knowing that at least part of the work was completed?

Posted by SursumCorda on Wednesday, August 22, 2018 at 9:25 pm

Yes, I think it's so they can focus on a single concern in each message, which means one incomplete answer doesn't delay closure on others.

Posted by Peter V on Thursday, August 23, 2018 at 10:39 am

I think Peter is right, at least in office situations. Let me illustrate.

Just today I dealt with an e-mail with two requests: one for files, and another for something not as readily provided. I'd been aware of the e-mail all week, having received it during my vacation.

If it had only been a request for files, I would have quickly complied, and moved the e-mail into an archival folder.

But with the two topics, I ended up sending the files and telling him I'd have to get back to him on the other topic. Now the e-mail sequence starts getting complicated. I can't easily mark on the e-mail that half of it has already been dealt with, so I either leave it to clutter my inbox or archive it despite the risk of forgetting it.

In actual fact, I archived it and hoped that the third person I had to contact about the second request would reply within a reasonable time. (He did, but if he hadn't, I would have had no visible reminder to follow up on him.)

Now I will likely send a second reply to the e-mail I'd already replied to, and the original writer will have to figure out whether to consolidate the thread back into one e-mail thread or reply to both e-mails separately (and then have two threads with the same subject).

Ideally the writer would put in the effort to write e-mails that the recipient can easily deal with, and the recipient would put in the effort to read the e-mail carefully...

Posted by Stephan on Thursday, August 23, 2018 at 5:30 pm

I have noticed short attention span issues. I can't ascertain the cause, but I think it's a shame. People are in such a rush about everything all the time...

Posted by Diane Villafane on Friday, August 24, 2018 at 1:00 pm
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