It takes quite a bit to scare me. It really does. But this article from Harvard Business Review (HBR) — “Slow Down and Write Better Emails” — scared the shit out of me. I feel as if I’m clinging ever-more desperately to rationality, self-awareness, hope for intelligence, and the survival of Western Civilization. And I’m starting, more and more, to feel like a squirrel trying to climb a shepherd’s pole that’s slathered in Valvoline Full Synthetic Grease.
The HBR article didn’t help. Here’s why:
First, it’s yet another of HBR’s thinly veiled pitches for yet another book that’s yet another thinly veiled statement of the obvious:
Given how central reading and writing comprehension is to our virtual lives, it’s time to remind ourselves what good communication looks like. As I describe in my book, Digital Body Language, reading carefully is the new listening, and writing clearly is the new empathy.
Digital Body Language. Good grief. If we get any more shallow, we’re going to have to invent new tools to measure depths so minuscule. If writing is the new empathy, superficiality is the new religion. And if our heads get any farther up our butts, our only lines of sight will be through our navels.
Second, setting aside the truly terrifying fact that HBR actually published the article, someone perceived a need to write it. Think about that perception for a moment (but grab a healthy dose of your favorite antiemetic before you start). The author believed we needed to be told this:
Having the skills to read and write carefully is essential to organizations who want to make sure their teams are on the same page and excel in our virtual world.
Oh, shit! Really?! Thank God you tipped us off.
And if some condescension is good, more is definitely better. So, try this on for size: Someone or some group of people somewhere believed she (the author) — and HBR — should be the ones to tell us reading and writing are important. (Is HBR’s target audience still intended to be adults?) If you can’t figure out what that says about what they think of us, here’s a hint: It’s not a compliment.
The Best is Yet to Come
And just when we think we might be out of the woods, out of range of the next barrage of condescending triviality, we get this:
If you just received a vague or confusing text or email, don’t be afraid to ask to request a phone conversation or, if possible, a video or in-person meeting.
Translation (in your best Edith Bunker voice): “All right, friends. [That’s right. Even in kindergarten teachers aren’t allowed to use pejorative terms like class, students, or children.] If people say things you don’t understand, ask them what they mean.”
If we hadn’t lost all sight of ourselves (we have), articles like this from HBR would be considered cruel and unusual punishment, the linguistic equivalent of a rap on the knuckles with a brass ruler. But as Bob Dylan sang in “My Back Pages”, from Another Side of Bob Dylan: “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”
Back to the Future
As much as anything else, that absurd article in HBR reminds me of another article, this one brilliant, by the equally brilliant Matt Labash.
Called “Growing Old Without Growing Up“, the article recounts Labash’s experience at a summer camp for adults. After leaving the camp, Labash heads for Yosemite National Park to do some fly fishing and to try to regain his bearings and his sanity. At the end of the article, he writes this:
Most days, when I fish, I’m all about the river and never look up … I’m too busy reading water. But today, as I’m fruitlessly fishing downstream, not even seeing the shadow of a spooked fish, I can’t help but keep looking over my shoulder at El Capitan, glowing pink in the valley’s half-light. That beautiful granite and diorite rock is not concerned about staying young. It has already stood for millennia, and will stand for millennia more. And the best part of all is that it is standing beside me right now, completely indifferent to my successes and failures, reminding me of my own glorious insignificance.
Those words recall these words from Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949:
It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. We remain fixed to the unexorcised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood. In the United States there is even a pathos of inverted emphasis: the goal is not to grow old, but to remain young.
And those words recall these words from F. Scott Fitzgerald at the conclusion of The Great Gatsby:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
We may be growing older, kids. But we are most certainly not growing up. And we’re regressing at the expense of the future.
P.S. The title of this post derives from this book. Harvard Business Review proves its point and its correctness.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.