My “Beautiful” Email Project

I began using email in the early days — around 1989.  It was fun, a bit like secret notes passed under a teacher’s nose. But then in 1992, I met its dark side.  First came listserv flame wars, then conversations that in hindsight were clearly too personal, next time-consuming avalanches in my inbox (over 100 per day at one point), and, ultimately, receiving hateful emails aimed directly at me.

While I’ve never sent any hateful emails, I’m embarrassed to say that early on I sent some that may well have hurt the recipients.  Certainly I was unskillful.

The net result was for 25 years I was afraid, at points even terrified, of opening email each day.

I tried many remedies.  “Netiquette” guides were the most helpful.  However, they were hard to remember and too rigid.  There usually aren’t cookie-cutter solutions for more challenging emails.

Then in 2011 I began practicing Nonviolent Communication (NVC).  A year later a practice group facilitator sent me the most empathetic email I’ve ever received. She acknowledged that the email I’d sent to the group (my response to an inquiry she’d made of us) must have been extremely hard to write and how I was probably feeling fear and loneliness.

I was astounded. I had long ago given up on email ever being anything better than a neutral in difficult circumstances.  But this was absolutely beautiful.

Since then, I’ve looked to NVC to help with my email conundrum, but, to my surprise, I’ve never found any clear guidance on effectively using NVC practices in this arena.

Nevertheless, this facilitator planted a seed of hope — a vision of possibility.  I combine this with Buddhist teacher and scholar, Gil Fronsdal, saying that a better translation of the word that’s the opposite of “unskillful,” which is usually translated as “good,” is “beautiful.”  Think about it.  “Beautiful” is lighter, less laden with moralistic overtones, than “good” or even “skillful.”

While henceforth I’ll use “skillful” to talk about this project of mine (it’s more practical when combined with the word “email”), my secret hope is to cultivate beautiful email.

Thus today, Feb. 1, 2020, the start of a new month, I’m launching this project — to pay close attention to email and over time develop a Guide to Skillful Email that relies primarily on the practices of NVC.