I am a fan of the television show Glee; it is one of my guilty pleasures. As most television programs are, this show is a tiny bit oversimplified and an over stereotyped version of an actual high school as one would experience it today. But those stereotypes and representations of reality are based on some fact, right? Although it is not unique to this particular episode, in “Blame it on the Alcohol” there is a scene which depicts all the kids from the glee club walking down various hallways in school discussing the pros and cons of attending a party. The thing that makes this discussion interesting is that even though they are walking right next to one another, crisscrossing paths, they are all talking to each other on their cell phones. A parody, certainly, but probably not too far from the truth.
My boss’s children (ages 7 and 9) both have iTouches and cell phones (which don’t have the capability to text). My mother-in-law told me a story about a friend of a friend whose 2 year-old grandchild has an iPad and can actually navigate through (and into) apps. I am more likely to get a response from my brother if I text him than if I call. A colleague once told a friend, who was complaining about someone not returning their email, “Pick up the phone and call them!”- a thought which had not necessarily occurred to my friend. As trite as it is to say this, we live in a digital age: between email, text messaging, blogging, social media network updating and tweeting it seems there is very little need to actually have face to face (or even voice to voice) contact with anyone anymore. Many argue that this is leading to a degradation of language and a growing inability to carry on a real conversation. I’m not sure. I mean, I see the argument- 147 characters does not a conversation make- but I also suspect that the average person is way more connected to the outside world than ever before and that these connections might actually make us more likely to start, or carry-on, a conversation with someone we might not have otherwise.
Regardless, last week I did something I think takes inappropriate online behavior to another level- I broke up with a potential employer over email. Let me explain.
About one month ago, I agreed to do some consulting work on top of my full time job. I thought that finding the time for this would be no problem. But I was wrong. And before the contract landed on my desk I needed to tell said potential employers that I simply did not have the time I feel I needed to allow me to deliver quality work and maintain my sanity. For the following two weeks, the women I needed to talk to were either (1) stuck in Alabama and then not able to get to the office (in Maine) because of a snow storm, (2) home sick with the flu, (3) at a conference, (4) so bogged down with other deadlines that our weekly calls were pushed back and rescheduled and then canceled. Meanwhile I received an email from one of their staff that they were about to put several people on the horn to try and figure out what happened to the contract I needed to sign and would “have it to me by Monday morning.” I panicked (how many people were about to drop everything else they were doing to hunt down a contract that I had no intention of signing?!). And then I started writing.
I very calmly (if one can write an email that conveys calmness to the reader) explained that I was sorry to have to tell them this, but I was not going to be able to contract for them after all. My current (full-time) job was demanding more of me than I knew it could and I felt that I already had precious little time for my family and myself. Taking on another 10 hours/week would stretch me too thin, and the work that I delivered to their organization and my current employers would suffer. I told them that I was not willing to turn in sub-par products. I also told them that I was sorry that this news had to come over email, but that I wanted to get the message to them before they sent their legions to HR and that I hoped we could have a discussion in person (well, over the phone). Knowing that this could mean professional suicide, I hit send.
Thankfully this story turns out well for me. Both women were completely understanding; sorry to see me go, but made a point of telling me to contact them in the future. The whole interaction did leave me wondering if it was something special about these two women that they were able to accept this kind of electronic news the way they did, or if it speaks to something larger- that we [society] are just more accustomed to, more accepting of, a less personal form of communication. In the end it doesn’t really matter, I’m not planning on breaking up with anyone over email in the near future.
Ever done anything you regret over email? Think it’s done more harm than good? Share your thoughts.