What Abraham Lincoln Taught Me about Email—Thoughts on How Lincoln's Electric Communications Came to Affect Mine
By Tom Wheeler
I began writing Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails based on the thesis that Abraham Lincoln's telegrams made him the first online president. As I watched Lincoln's use of the telegraph evolve and read and re-read his messages I began to discover that I was thinking of his t-mails as I wrote my own emails. Here is how Abraham Lincoln's t-mails ended up having an effect upon how I use email.
Hierarchy of Communications - Electronic messages were Lincoln's least preferred means of communicating. First on his hierarchy were direct, in person exchanges. Today, however, the ease of email encourages us to use it as a primary means of communication. Worse still, we use email as a way to avoid personal interaction. Such habits are the exact opposite of Lincoln's behavior. Lincoln sought face-to-face exchanges. Walking among the government agencies to drop in on one person or another, Lincoln could not only deliver a message, but also hear a reply, see the body language, and engage in dialog. Electronic communications became an important part of Lincoln's leadership, but only in situations where distance was too great and mail or messenger too slow. I have become more aware that emails are not a substitute for walking down the hall or picking up the phone.
Words are Important - When he used an electronic message Lincoln maximized its impact by using carefully chosen words. His August 1864 telegram to General Grant, "Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke" could not have been more explicitly expressed. Emails, on the other hand, have tended to become the communications equivalent of casual Fridays, substituting comfort and ease for discipline and rigor. The impersonal context of an electronic message, devoid of body language and tone of voice, places an increased burden on the precision of words. As I write emails I am more aware that the manner in which I express myself must not only convey my thoughts, but also the nuances which would otherwise be communicated physically.
Less is More - Whereas many saw the blank telegraph form as an invitation to an essay, Lincoln's telegrams were short and to the point. "Your long despatch of yesterday just received," Lincoln chided General George McClellan about a 10-page telegram sent in May 1863. Then the president required only three additional sentences to reply to the general's endless essay. Staring at a blank email screen offers a great temptation to lengthy prose that should be avoided at all costs. I have tried to adopt the practice that if a message is important enough to go on for pages, it is probably too important to be expressed in an email. On the other hand, I respect emails (and their authors) that are succinct to the point of almost being terse.
Message Candor - Honest Abe was frank and direct in his communications. "If you and he would use the same frankness to one another, and to me, that I use to both of you, there would be no difficulty," Lincoln wrote General Joseph Hooker in June 1863 regarding the ongoing feud between Hooker and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. Because electronic messages are communications without physical context they place new demands on forthright expression. Lincoln learned that a polite "suggestion" which when delivered in person can be recognized as more than a mere suggestion, needs to be more directly conveyed in an electronic message. Reading between the lines of an email is more difficult than reading facial expressions or voice tones.
Take a Breath - If frankness and candor are a virtue, they also require judicious application in electronic messages. Just because it is possible to instantaneously send a message doesn't mean it is appropriate to do so. Responding to a September 1863 telegram from General Ambrose Burnside, Lincoln wrote in a reply telegram, "it makes me doubt whether I am awake or dreaming. I have been struggling for ten days...to get you to go assist Gen. Rosecrans...and yet you steadily move the other way." After fully venting his frustrations Lincoln turned the page over and wrote, "Not sent." Hitting the "Send" button on an email is an easy, but irreparable, action. I have found that a message quickly composed in frustration has a high probability of becoming a message I would later regret. Lincoln may have been direct and frank in his t-mails, but he also understood that not all messages are appropriate for the electronic medium.
Reading Other People's Mail - Abraham Lincoln's habit was to walk into the War Department telegraph office, open the drawer containing copies of all the telegrams received, and read them all, regardless of to whom they were addressed. Through this procedure Lincoln had a keyhole into the thinking of his generals and activities in the field. The "cc" and "Reply All" function of email provides a similar opportunity for us to stay informed. While many discourage the practice as simply "CYA" it nevertheless is an effective means of sharing information. Lincoln would skim the stack of telegrams and set aside those he wanted to carefully consider; we have the same opportunity to skim and hit the delete button. Excluding spam, of course, the issue is not too many emails, the information they bring can be helpful and if not can be quickly deleted. Lincoln's gift was also what he did with the information. When he saw something in a telegram not addressed to him Lincoln had no hesitation to interject himself, uninvited, into the matter at hand. Lincoln led by reading the electronic inbox and then projecting his leadership at times of his choosing.
The Value of a Hand-Written Note - Lincoln's appreciation of the telegraph was because of its ability to instantaneously communicate over great distances. Where a face-to-face meeting was not possible he preferred a well thought out letter. In such letters he would cogently lay out his thoughts as well as respond to issues he imaged the recipient would raise. Something handwritten is also more physically and emotionally powerful than an impersonal message over the wires. When for instance, Lincoln congratulated General Grant for his Vicksburg victory in July 1863 his statement, "I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong" was made all the more significant by coming direct from the president's hand. I have begun to realize that precisely because email offers an easy way to dash off a message, that certain kinds of messages are actually diminished when sent electronically. The impact of a handwritten note has been increased by the electronic ability to avoid such a note.
Abraham Lincoln developed the modern model of electronic leadership out of necessity, without text or tutor in the midst of a national calamity. To suggest that Lincoln's telegrams are somehow "lessons" to be followed in our use of emails would be to demean them, the reason they exist in the first place, and their author. However, I have found that my experience reading Abraham Lincoln's t-mails has made me more thoughtful in my use of emails.