The Golden Rule

In most of my classes, when I am teaching email etiquette and protocol, I tell them the stories of Larissa #1 and Larissa #2.  Larissa #1 was a student of mine in the early 1990s, when I was teaching in the Writing and Critical Thinking program at Stanford University. She was raised by immigrants in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles, and told me she was the first person on her block ever to even enroll at a university. Larissa #1 was super-smart but struggled in her first semester, when she took my class; her high-school studies had been less rigorous that what her wealthier peers could afford, so she had to catch up.

Toward the end of the semester, and very late at night, after midnight, I received an email from Larissa #1. I forget what the subject header was, exactly, but I do remember that it conveyed frustration and anger. The tone startled me; this Larissa was very sweet and friendly. Before I clicked on the In Box link to open the email, I received another one, from Larissa. I *do* remember the subject header for that one: “Please don’t open my first email!”

I deleted the first email, unread, and immediately emailed Larissa #1 to tell her that I had done so. She wrote back, appearing to believe me, to say that she was relieved, that her first email was filled with venting at the deadline I had given for her next assignment.

Years later, in Vancouver, I myself wrote a poorly conceived email to a woman I am calling Larissa #2. There was nothing angry or defamatory in that email, but it revealed an intention I had, a hope, regarding a project the two of us were working on, prematurely. I wrote Larissa #2 a second email, asking her to delete the first one. She didn’t; she read it; this surprised me; our project eventually went off its rails.

I ask my students: Would *you* delete an email after receiving a second one requesting that you do so? I have asked this of more than a thousand students. Fewer than ten have said Yes. The rest have seemed to lament my lack of curiosity, but they get the point, forcefully: In the workplace, you cannot rely on the Golden Rule.

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(photo by Bob Basil)


You cannot edit yourself any more than you can tickle yourself, and for the same reasons, Diane Middlebrook once told me. Better writers understand this.


Here are the 9 C’s I use as an editor of other writers’ work:

1. Completeness

2. Conciseness

3. Clarity

4. Convincingness

5. Currency

6. Correctness

7. Consistency

8. Congruency

9. Courtesy

Almost all writers need a second set of eyes to assess and improve the first four qualities in a document they compose, because they typically already believe they’ve been concise, complete, clear, and convincing enough. To assess and improve the rest often requires that second set of eyes, too.

I believe that *courtesy* comprises all the other qualities, as the basis of successful communication, of fostering and maintaining relationships.

Thank you, Bob Crockett, for suggesting numbers 7 and 8 (though I’m embarrassed I hadn’t already placed “consistency” on the list).

[Note: My list overlaps a lot with this one but was put together independently. It’s not surprising its author and I reached similar conclusions, of course.]

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(photo by Bob Basil)

The Purpose of Professional Communication

I tell my students that the primary purpose of workplace communication is to foster and maintain relationships. I usually tack on an inverse way of saying it – “The *other* primary purpose is to not screw up” – because that’s a helpful way of remembering the first formulation (which I wish I had coined). Other purposes (to persuade, to inform, to protect, to describe, to amuse, or to organize, for example) are subordinate to this primary one.

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(photo by Bob Basil)