Richard Nixon and the E-mail Mess

The term “expletive deleted” entered the lexicon in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon provided edited transcripts of internal White House discussions to the public with profane words and phrases indicated thusly.

President Nixon announcing his resignation in 1974.

Although most knowledge workers wouldn’t need this type of redacting, the problem of profanity in e-mail at Goldman Sachs has apparently reached critical mass and the firm announced that it will enforce a strict policy of no dirty words in electronic messages.  This action is notable because a June 2007 e-mail from a Goldman executive was extensively quoted at Senate hearings this past April, including the phrase  “that … was one s—– deal.”  The firm’s policy covers instant and text messages in addition to e-mail messages.

Our research tells us that the typical knowledge worker will receive 93 e-mail messages each day in addition to dozens of instant and text messages, not to mention phone calls and messages sent via social networks.

Knowledge workers have long complained that there is simply too much e-mail but, until recently, profanity in e-mail was not a huge concern.  However, the use of naughty words in some organizations has reached epic proportions.  The news about Goldman and e-mail has been making headlines in the business press and one comment posted on the Wall Street Journal Web site was telling.

Arun Nisargand wrote: “I am amazed at the lack of professionalism on the Wall Street and the investment banking community.  In the engineering community and large Fortune 500 corporation where I work, profanity has never been a issue.  It is not used or tolerated.  In verbal, written or e-mail communication.  There is no written policy or directive.  We just know how to behave.”

While cleaning up one’s language may indeed be an admirable pursuit, the emphasis on dirty words (think George Carlin) obfuscates the real problem, which is that we send too much e-mail period.

Perhaps, however, some good will come out of this, namely that the 34,000 people will, as a result of the new policy, end up sending fewer e-mails messages each day, and that the practice will spread beyond Wall Street.

Expletive deleted, maybe eliminating obscene e-mail is the silver bullet we’ve been waiting for.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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