‘Another example of where being an MP and a human is unacceptable,” complained Jess Phillips as she tweeted a letter that she had sent to the justice secretary, Michael Gove.
The Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley told the Conservative minister that she found the response of a judge in a Department for Work and Pensions tribunal case about a constituent’s access to disability benefit a “total insult”.
Why so angry?
Phillips had been told that her evidence in the case had to be treated with “caution” because of an email she had sent to the constituent that read: “Hi, hope you are well and are keeping smiling. Below is the email trail with the DWP, I will let you know as soon as I hear anything. Jess X”.
The judge concluded that it was difficult to accept Phillips’s evidence as that of an MP writing on a “professional basis” because “both the familiarity and the wording, and the fact that Ms Phillips places a kiss after her name, indicate a relationship of affection and friendship which goes beyond the parameters of a merely professional relationship”.
Hang on a minute. All she did was include a kiss. A friendly kiss at that, along with some warm words for a constituent worried about losing her personal independence payments.
That is OK, isn’t it?
I hope so, because when it comes to over-familiarity in emails, I suspect I’m one of the worst offenders. A quick search of my messages exposes terrible overuse of kisses, exclamation marks and even all capitals in what ought to be serious notes to work colleagues, professional contacts and even politicians.
Only this week I accidentally sent out an “xx” to a senior colleague, wrote out a sentence to news editors in shouty capital letters (only to follow up with an equally unnecessary apology), and even typed “eek!” in an email to the most senior person in the organisation.
And while most of us would be on Team Phillips regarding her constituent’s case against the DWP, I’m quickly realising that I may be a little too gauche with email etiquette.
Take the response of colleagues working here in parliament to my question about what is appropriate in correspondence between colleagues and contacts.
“Kisses are obviously, always inappropriate,” said Kate Procter, the Yorkshire Post’s Westminster correspondent. Bloomberg’s Robert Hutton said he would restrict his xs to people he would actually kiss. Maybe it’s a Westminster thing – journalists working along the Commons corridors are surely the most hard-nosed, least cuddly of our trade.
Then again... I was surprised to get a similar response from friends on Facebook, who largely seemed to agree that it was simply inappropriate to be sending kisses in professional work emails. Others were more keen to share the love. So, who is right? Are there any hard-and-fast rules for how we should express ourselves online?
One business site lists a number of email crimes it thinks should be banned. First, “Don’t write in All CAPITALS”, says the site. OOPS.
It also advises people never to discuss confidential information in electronic correspondence. “Email messages are easy to copy, print and forward,” it points out.
Finally, the website warns: “Take care with abbreviations and emoticons.” “LOL” is OK for texts to friends, it says, but leave it there. “Some may not understand your abbreviations.” WTF?
Point taken. How we express ourselves in emails – which now account for the vast majority of correspondence between work colleagues, professional contacts, and so on, matters. The people who receive your notes may immediately make a judgment on what you are like.
Take the Guardian colleague who said “I always do XXs … sometimes emojis (God, who am I?) and my signature is a pun with a picture.” Which is great, but she also admitted: “I don’t think people take me seriously …” Do my emails get a similar response?
It is telling that another colleague said that seeing an “x” signoff from colleagues made him feel passive aggressive when he didn’t reply with the same loving touch.
But he admitted that he was torn, arguing that sometimes signoffs felt “excessively formal” for something thumbed on your phone. And that is the point.
With emails, often hammered out at speed, getting the tone right is important – but often tricky. It is easy to strike the wrong note – to be too stiff, too casual, or to include a joke that doesn’t play. Sometimes shortcuts to indicate humour are helpful, even necessary.
After all, have you ever sat nervously after sending a message with some lighthearted ribbing, worried about the stony silence? Ever stewed about whether to send another email to explain the first one, knowing that it might just get you into even hotter water?
Just think, an exclamation mark or a kiss might have saved you the worry. Xx
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