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Debate E-mail

We have all come back from a week's holiday to find hundreds of e-mails clogging the inbox. Are we using it in the right way or would we be better using post, fax, phone or even face to face conversation?

This week we ask:

Is e-mail stifling natural communication?

Yes

I am the first to advocate the use of new technology when it makes sense, but I cannot help but feel that e-mail gives us a distorted perspective of information being communicated.

Spend a day away from your screen and you have to be the world's fastest speed reader to clear the backlog. It is not surprising many people have given up even scanning their emails.

I appreciate that the popularity of e-mail is down to speed and convenience - and used sensibly it is a vital communication tool - but over-use of e-mail serves simply to increase the amount of superfluous information we all have to handle in a society already suffering from information overload.

Many people send unnecessary messages thinking, 'at least I have put it in writing, in case I ever need it as support'. And we have all heard of people in various industries sitting adjacent to each other communicating by e-mail. If you want to pick an argument, do it by e-mail, it is the easy option.

Look at the shambles e-mail has generally made of information prioritisation systems, designed to filter and control information efficiently in organisations.

The indications are that effective communication, using all our skills, such as observing facial and tonal expressions and of course all the other subtleties of human form, is being stifled.

Effective communication for civil engineers in society should include a combination of our various skills and these all need to be exercised to ensure their efficient use in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

On a lighter note, to get your message read these days I'd send a letter (snail mail) with a postmark on it as close as you can get to Buckingham Palace.

New technologies do have an important part to play in our industry but we need the correct training and management systems in place to ensure we are using the most effective communication technique available.

No

E-mail does not do anything - we do. Far from being stifling, it is a terrific tool for personal productivity.

What is natural communication? Human beings have always extended their methods of communication - from grunts to words, from voice to pen. When telephones appeared, there were those who fretted about the end of face to face communication. We all choose our own attitudes. We can make technology work for us, or we can believe ourselves controlled by it.

My own busy life has been greatly enhanced by e-mail. I can manage my time, without feeling pressured about having to reach a customer within working hours. I can transmit and receive information with ease. I can reach a dozen people across the world at once.

E-mail offers both immediacy and thinking time. It offers a chance to add to our efficiency, as well as the opportunity to work when it suits us. Prioritising and personal organisation are our own responsibilities - if we choose not to employ these skills, that is not the fault of e-mail. We can also choose to help each other - does every e-mail have to be sent to every person in our directory? A little consideration can reduce the hundreds of e-mails received. Equally, a little time spent setting up filters on our e-mail system can help us quickly sort that communication. That, too, is a matter of personal choice.

Of course, it is one dimensional - the written word without body language to modify it. This presents us with yet another choice. The wrong word can offend. So let us rise to the challenge of improving our use of language and accept responsibility for our own choices. If we start doing that, we will all stop seeing e-mail as a stifling problem and find, instead, that it is simply a tool for our liberation.

The facts

E-mail was first used in the the UK in the late 1980s. Since then it has become a standard form of business and personal communication.

The Royal Mail says that over recent years the use of regular post has increased, rather than fallen as was predicted when email was introduced.

Some leading organisations like Nestle Rowntree and Camelot are reported to be banning the use of e-mail on Fridays 'to encourage creativity.' The intention is to encourage more face to face interaction between desk bound staff to generate better ideas.

Some linguists are predicting that e-mail shorthand which disregards correct spelling and grammar will fundamentally change accepted written communication standards.

Banks have already reported receiving letters from students with no upper case for dear mr brown and signed off 'love joe'.

The finest exponent of e-mail literature so far is the dieting diarist Bridget Jones.

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