Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Co-worker: "I am bored to the extent of dying of boredom"

Although e-mail has brought us all closer together, a universal language -- sorry, Esperanto -- is still far from being commonplace. Global organizations have made do, batting correspondence across waters for years, but I didn't realize until lately the personal pitfalls of those unfamiliar with the preferred system of communication.

As an editrix, I make a lot of trade-offs between descriptive and prescriptive grammar -- between language as it is spoken or written on the ground and the rule books (Chicago, AP, Strunk and White) to which I cling so dearly. Although my Indian colleagues tend to have rather good grammar if you judge them by, for example, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston and Pullum), it's a battle to explain that using American business style is not a compromise of quality but rather another way of seeing language -- a perspective that must be adopted as companies increasingly look to India for knowledge workers focused on global correspondence.

These musings are prompted by a visitor from my company's New York office who oversees two women that schedule interviews and thus correspond with people from Paris to Poland, China to Chicago, South Africa to Switzerland. She pulls me into her cubicle one day, and hands me a print out. "These," she says, "are examples of the e-mails the girls have been sending out. Since you are, after all, an American and know what American business style sounds like, can you read through these and make suggestions to them about how to improve their written English?"

The communiques were peppered with words many of my compatriates consider archaic -- shall, henceforth -- and lacked the assertive voice so often confused as brash unconcern for anyone's affairs but one's own. Neurotic, perfectionist to the core, I compiled ten or so "best practice" templates expressing information in what I considered a courteous, respectful, and direct manner. "Perfect," the overseer said, "now there are no excuses for this bad grammar, bad punctuation."

Yesterday, one of the girls called me over to her desk and asked me to read through a new draft of a letter. "Is this too rude?" The template has been mangled, the word "please" appears two or three times in thirty words, and passive construction abounds.

"'s alright, but I think your boss wanted you to start using those samples I suggested?"

"But...they're just so rude!"

I shrugged, discussed the dilemma, and let it be. It's not really my place to be the arbiter of international language standards; however, I do wonder how this will evolve.

Befuddled? An illustration:


Dear ___,

Kindly ignore the previous mail. Request the schedule stand for date at time. The dial in details are being mailed.


Dear ____,

Please ignore the scheduling mail sent date at time. This message was sent in error.

Your discussion with our editors on “__________" will take place date at time, as previously discussed. Details on how to dial in and connect to the call will be sent shortly.

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