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It seems clear that emails keep people apart in the sense that they’re often sent to colleagues or friends in preference to a face-to-face or phone conversation. But I’m beginning to think they separate us in even more fundamental ways.

Too many times my emails have been interpreted by people in ways I didn’t intend. And I have often felt scalded by emails that other people sent me in a moment of anger, usually triggered by an email of mine that had inadvertently pushed the wrong levers.

I have no idea how many times I have inflicted hurt or anxiety on other people, by putting the wrong words down in a message. I hope it hasn’t happened often. But I know it’s happened at least once. I remember a colleague surging breathless with anger into my office, in response to a suspicious, defensive message I had sent her a minute before. Whether she had emailed me or talked to me, she would have left me in no doubt about her anger. But by hopping with emotion in front of my eyes, she also showed me how vulnerable she was, and how essentially nice. Only the rarest of emails could have communicated this so well.

It’s easy to say hurtful things to someone when they’re not sitting in front of you. And it’s easy to forget a person’s essential niceness when they’re not sitting in front of you.

I once scoffed academically when told that we should all use emoticons in messages to students, to bring more tone to what we’re saying in emails. But now I’m beginning to see the point of the grinning faces. Somehow, a smiley face reminds you of a person’s essential niceness. And of their essential silliness. 😉