By Cynthia Ryan
Lines of Communication
Sharing bad news has never been easier—but is that a good thing?
By Cynthia Ryan
I hadn’t known that Betsy was sick until I opened an e-mail in August 2008 announcing that she had died from complications of advanced breast cancer at age 43. The news was conveyed not only to me, but also to hundreds of other members of an e-mail discussion group for writing teachers. It quickly led to numerous posts to the list.
Some thanked the original sender for passing along the information and for including an obituary from a newspaper in the university town where Betsy lived and taught. Others wondered aloud about their previous encounters with Betsy: Was she the one who had written a book about literacy? Had she once presented a really interesting paper on feminist theory at a conference in Denver? One e-mail inquired about Betsy’s family, asking how her young daughter, Willa, and husband, Don, were doing—an uncomfortable question because Don, too, was a frequent participant on the discussion list.
My feelings about these messages were mixed. I didn’t know Betsy well, but enough to chat with her when we ran into each other at a professional meeting. She had even co-written a chapter for a book that I had edited several years ago. We hadn’t kept in touch, though, and the sudden news of her diagnosis and death was a shock. It was too much to take in at once, especially via an e-mail providing no more warning than a subject line reading “sad news.”
Sending the Right Message
When college students enter my classroom these days, I cover the usual: reading schedule, writing assignments, grade percentages and, yes, communication etiquette. Silence cell phones before class. No texting during class. Respond to e-mails after class, and never in the middle of a lecture on Aristotelian rhetoric. Students always chuckle as I review the rules, until someone’s phone rings to the tune of “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Despite such annoyances, though, isn’t communication more accessible than ever, thanks to new technologies? After all, we can reach people almost anytime, anywhere. And through innovations like Facebook and Twitter, we can reveal intimate details of our lives en masse—including news of Uncle Charlie’s biopsy and Aunt June’s struggles with her insurance company. But just because we can communicate here, there and everywhere, should we?