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Swellboy on… email etiquette

What Somerset Maugham tells us about the age of the email

Swellboy on… email etiquette

Image: Brijesh Patel

February 08 2011
Nick Foulkes

“I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, as it’s important, the matter is more often important to him than to you.”

It is with this eternal truth that W Somerset Maugham kicks off Cakes and Ale. Maugham was a genius; I don’t know how fashionable he is today, probably not very, but as openers go, that one is right up there with Tolstoy on families: “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”; Hartley on the past, “a foreign country; they do things differently there”; and Austen on marriage, “a truth universally acknowledged”, etc.

And while Maugham, whether the young successful Edwardian playwright painted by Gerald Festus Kelly or the crotchety grand old man of English letters depicted by Sutherland looking as if he has just sat on something uncomfortable, may not have lived into the email age, the message that he conveys in the opening line of his piercing and wickedly amusing study of how literary reputation is made carries a particular resonance today. It springs to mind whenever I am presented with one of those emails bearing a little red flag or exclamation mark denoting an email of singularly high importance, one that has to be opened right now, this very minute, if not sooner. Rightly or wrongly, I feel that any statutory pre-prepared high-priority notice, as opposed to something handwritten and obviously done in extremis, deserves to be ignored.

However, I have noticed that my Hotmail account carries the option of accessorising your email with a downward-pointing arrow denoting an email of negligible significance. I have yet to receive one of these, but I am going to start sending them now and again as I think that the rarity of receiving an email that avowedly announces itself as utterly unimportant will pique the recipient’s curiosity.

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