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May 20, 2012Opinion

Annabel Crabb<P.< p>Photo: James Brickwood

Email correspondence has spawned a whole new genus of office personalities.

EMAIL. Was there ever a more delightful, terrifying, treacherous invention?

My email inbox currently has 20,000 unread messages. Even when you discount Twitter updates, press releases from Joe Ludwig (my favourite this week: a transcript of the minister’s speech to the Pan Pacific Pork Expo, along the theme “Positioning Australian Pork”), spam from the real estate agent to whom I incautiously gave my address five years ago when I was trying to buy a house, and that guy who emails his expletive-studded views on federal politics unbidden every single morning and with whom I am loath to establish electronic eye contact for long enough to ask him to desist, that’s still several thousand potentially interesting things that have simply escaped my eye.

New ones arrive; dozens an hour. I try to fish out the human ones, but my system isn’t perfect.

Email post box‘Email has unleashed a great parade of office freaks.’ Photo: Phil Carrick

Reading Gideon Haigh’s completely enchanting new book, The Office: A Hardworking History, which is a romp through the inkstands and cubicles of the evolving human workspace, it strikes me that email hasn’t so much provided a new chapter in the story of the office, so much as expanded the office into every corner of life.

The office is there, with its stentorian commands, every time you check your inbox on the train, or in the playground, or on the dunny.

And email has unleashed – or at least powerfully invigorated – a grand new parade of office freaks and personality disorders, over a stunningly short period of time.

“People have had about 50,000 years’ experience in the use of speech and gestures, 5000 years’ experience in writing and about 100 years of the telephone,” explains an expert quoted by Haigh.

But email’s only been around for five seconds, in evolutionary terms, and now – in the absence of any firm etiquette – it’s spawned a whole genus of new office characters. Let me give you a few examples.

The Inclusionist: The Inclusionist feels that no email is really worthwhile unless it has a CC list that looks like a call sheet for the Leveson inquiry. Everyone from the mail room to the boardroom is therefore copied in on the vital question of T-shirt design for the Family Fun Day, or the disappearance of the cake knife from the kitchenette on level three. Recipients who fantasise about sinking the missing implement between the shoulder blades of the well-meaning messenger may feel guilt about this reflex, but shouldn’t.

The Stealth Bomber: Is essentially The Inclusionist, switched to “evil” mode. The Stealth Bomber sends a pleasantly worded mild rebuke advising the recipient that she has missed a deadline, or disappointed a client in some respect, or tripped up on some minor occupational health and safety matter, all of which seems moderate to reasonable until the recipient realises that every single person senior to her in the organisation has been included in the CC list. Kaboom!

The Midnight Martyr: Sends emails in the middle of the night or – better – in the grey predawn hours, thereby creating the impression of round-the-clock industry. Typically, the emails are trivial in nature; the reader is thus encouraged to infer that the writer is not up at this hour because it’s an emergency, but is simply exercising his habitual preference for work over flabby, human indulgences like sleep.

A tip for young players: If you yearn to improve your reputation for assiduity by attempting a little Midnight Martyrdom, do not take a strong drink first. Midnight Mumbledom creates an entirely different effect.

The Passive-Aggressive Warrior: Will send an office-wide email kindly offering to purchase a new coffee mug for the person who keeps using hers, and then abandoning it in the sink with a sticky sludge of International Roast down the bottom. The PAW may well mention – in the course of the email – her own perfect record of cleaning up after herself, and the fact that she understands people are busy. She may also mention that she has her suspicions about the identity of the culprit. The suspect, incidentally, is probably sitting not more than two desks away but will at no point be engaged in direct discussion by the PAW.

The Over-Kisser: Self-explanatory. Will attach cyber-smooches to any missive, no matter how inappropriate. I am an over-kisser. I finally realised this when I sent an outline for this very column to my editor, and signed off with an “x”.

The Rehearser: Will spend an hour and a half carefully drafting a reply to any of the above-mentioned types of correspondents. The reply – written with verve, confidence, and flashes of Wildean wit – may analyse the original correspondent’s own failings in some depth, and will certainly conclude with a devastating one-liner. Having crafted this utterly satisfying response, The Rehearser will then delete the lot, and return miserably to work.

■Annabel Crabb writes for ABC online’s The Drum, and tweets as @annabelcrabb

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