The other day my pal Tony and I were talking about how e-mail and other electronic communications have made business relationships shallower, more impermanent and less productive.
As a drunken Dylan Thomas once interrupted himself, "Somebody's boring me. I think it's me."
As I write this, over a double scotch on the flight back to Chicago from a visit to my Phoenix publisher, I have another idea: It is possible to make meaningful and deep connections with far-flung colleagues using only e-mail, and the occasional phone call and IM. I know, because I'm feeling sad and somewhat shaken on account of my long-distance colleague, Jenny Makinde, is leaving the company to start a family.
Jenny and I probably did not strictly need to forge the relationship we did; our mutual competence—she as the office administrator, I as a daily contributor—would have carried us along professionally.
But the two of us wanted to make a relationship with one another, just because we spent enough time at the same tasks that it seemed to us that we should. I wanted to know her (and for her to know me) badly enough to send her a link to a cloying confession I made about how I manipulate customer service people. And Jenny wanted to communicate with me badly enough to write, "Shame on you, Murray."
I remember exactly where I was when I got that e-mail from her—a business center in a Washington hotel—and I sat straight up and knew I had found a serious new correspondent in this world, and that much more meaning in my work life.
Since then, Jenny and I took the time and happily spent the energy to talk, about her wedding to a Nigerian—she was Morris when I met her—the adventures of my daughter Scout, our workout routines, her pregnancy, my foreign business trips, our work and colleagues and high hopes and realistic predictions about things—all the sorts of serious and casual and jokey things that all co-workers talk about.
Jenny's as stoic a dame as I ever met, but she gracefully acknowledged my occasional group ejaculations praising her work and expressing gratitutde for her spirit.
"This e-mail makes me happy," the department head wrote in response to one of those notes of mine.
Yeah, damn right, because good relationships—built on candor and on showing up for one another every day, and elaborated on by good humor and kindness—these are the things that make people happy. And given the right circumstances, they're actually easier to achieve at work than anywhere else. Becuase work is the real life where we can prove our loyalty, earn our trust, offer our generosity and our good nature to one another, and receive the benefits of our colleagues' beauty in real and truly useful ways.
Such human commerce doesn't happen all the time, but if it happens less than it used to, it's not technology getting in between people who want to connect. It's reticent people who don't want to connect, who use technology and distance and emotional detachment that pretends, "it's just business," to hide from each other. Because they are afraid, for whatever reason, of one another.
But Jenny Makinde and me—and you, Writing Boots reader—we reach across!