A minute to reflect in nanosecond world

February 07, 2000|By Susan Benjamin

SO, WE'RE REALLY here. The year 2000, the age of technology, speed, nano-nano second communications. Or should that be, Communications? Either way, one thing's clear in these virgin days of the new year: Exchanging messages is a drag.

Case in point: I spent the early part of the New Year away. The day I was homebound, news flash! The aviation computer board in New Hampshire crashed, leaving thousands of passengers stranded at airports throughout New England. Worse, it left 28 airplanes stranded midair, pilots unable to communicate with their earth-bound brethren, fuel slowly diminishing. This confidence-deflating situation recurred near Washington a few days later: no one seems to know why, but, we are told, it is not related to Y2K. How reassuring.

When I got home, I did what most Americans would do before unpacking, greeting the cats, getting their children a snack, and yes, even going to the bathroom: check the 12 days of e-mail exhausting their archives. But wait, I couldn't log on. I tried again. Nope. And again. Nope. The computer seemed OK, and I had taken all the proper Y2K precautions so I checked my phone. Quiet. That eerie, rigor-mortis quiet meaning the phone line was dead. Fortunately, I have two lines, so I checked the second where the dial tone purred happily.

My next step was to call the phone company. After waiting for five interminable minutes, someone else's idea of music funneling into my ear, the rep informed me that my e-mail line was disconnected in June. In June? "But I'd been e-mailing and faxing from that line until the end of December."

"Sorry," she said, then asked what line I was calling from. I told her.

"Nope," she said. "That line was cut off in June, also."

"Impossible," I said. "I'm talking on it now, I've paid the bills ..."

This time, she cut me off. "The computer said you haven't had either line since June."

Meaning: the phone lines simply don't exist. Existential issues aside, my main concern was getting one line back and keeping the other. We batted this around a while, then she left me on hold for endless nanoseconds while she looked for a supervisor. None to be found. Our next conversation went something like this: "So who do I talk to?"

"A supervisor."

"But you can't find one."

"That's right."

"Should I call back?"

"Sure, but you won't find one then either. They're all busy."

"Can someone call me?"

"Definitely ..."

Phew.

"... but not until tomorrow."

"I'll be out working tomorrow."

"Oh well."

Now, four? five? who knows how many days later, my e-mails await me from cyberspace as the phone company and I play another round of telephone tag. In the meantime, I've called several clients letting them know why I can't send or receive any e-mails. One large government agency whose name I won't divulge but upon whom we all depend was nonplussed. Turns out their e-mail had been down for weeks.

All right, but we're talking technology here. We loath but expect these problems, much as we expect our cars to break down and our VCRs to refuse to rewind. Now, here's the personal, ironic twist. I work as a communications consultant -- on the word-use end. My first day back, I compiled an assessment for a client, a Fortune 500 company, about its writing processes. According to the data my employees collected, the organization was suffering from a communications problem of another sort. Its employees, like so many in the work force, were e-mail happy. In fact, the average employee with a keyboard on his or her desk was sending anywhere from five to 25 e-mails a day: Other employees, particularly managers, were receiving 50, maybe 100.

This is fine as a measure of popularity, importance, self-worth. It's also annoying to a professional with more pressures than oatmeal has oats. Rather than read every e-mail, some read the first lines of a few choice e-mails and deleted the rest. Others had almost superstitious selection methods: Some looked at the first five e-mails and deleted the rest, some only opened the most recent, say, those sent after 3 p.m. but none from before. Many deleted all the e-mails, that's right, all of them, without regard to sender or subject line. In the process, they could have missed everything from "We urgently need the report by 5" to "Did you hear? The CEO died. You want the job?"

Another sad but common problem: Both their internal and external readers were either unable to understand the proliferation of jargon, passivity and wordiness in an overwhelming number of communications or unwilling to try. This problem intensified with yet another client I visited the following day for a plain-language training session. The writing there was so full of industry and technological language even the authors couldn't understand it. The client? In the interests of confidentiality and continuing work, I won't name names. Suffice to say this client is one of the nation's leading communications technology firms.

Well, I think I've made my point and should close here. Besides, I want to get this off to the newspaper soon. Let's see, I can't e-mail it -- my e-mail's still down. And my fax machine's connected to my computer, so forget that. I should try the phone company again and see about my line but, nope, it's after hours. Maybe I should send this snail mail, but no, that takes too long and what with computer problems at the airports who knows when it will arrive. I know! I'll just hitch up my horse and buggy and deliver it myself.

Susan Benjamin is president of Words at Work International. She is an expert on plain language and recently had her book, "Words at Work: Business Writing in Half the Time with Twice the Power," published.

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