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Dare to sprinkle e-mails with a touch of personality

July 1, 2001 

Long ago on a faraway planet, I shared an internship with a guy who would exclaim, "Gotcha!" every time someone made a point. This habit didn't do much to hurt his career; the last I heard he was working for The New York Times.

You always remember a person who uses unusual or outrageous language, whether it annoys or enlightens. If Mr. Gotcha had no quirks, I would have forgotten him by now.

E-mail offers an entirely new platform for the mangling and personalization of language. The boss may send out 10 e-mails outlining new policy and get 10 different responses - from "affirmative" to "gotcha."

Even within the narrow confines of business correspondence, the flexibility offered by these expletives offer us a chance to differ from the next person.

Mr. Gotcha didn't set out to be irritating; he just was - to me, at least. Obviously, this reaction wasn't universal, as he continued to have a career while using that word a few times a day.

Maybe it's better to be a little weird and a little obnoxious than have no personality at all. There is probably someone close to you who overuses a word - "awesome" or "apparently" - and it gets on your nerves.

But if you like this person at all, it's a little uncool to correct his or her usage, unless it causes a real problem.

Mangling words - making your messages look a bit more like speech - is one way to liven up your e-mail. Many of us create new run-on words from common phrases, like "absobuovolutely" and "whaddya think?"

But you can't be too subtle. As misspellings are tolerated in e-mails, many recipients will mistake your attempts at creativity as carelessness or bad spelling. The trick is to get the recipient to read the made-up word aloud, then they get the meaning, inflection and all.

And soon the language changes. You can bet that some mutation of "fugedaboudit" will be in the dictionary of the future.

E-mail can help personalize our writing. It's fast, furious and immediate, so anything that makes it more like speech makes it more evocative - as long as the expression is honest.

If you can write "gotcha!" and mean it, the recipient can actually picture you speaking the message contents. And if your messages have personality they will be worth reading.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him, by e-mail at Type "Inbox" in the subject field.

By Charles Bermant, Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company

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