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In the realm of fiction, telepathy is a wondrous and dangerous power. Heroes use it to provide comfort and clarity, to gather vital information, and to advance laudable goals. Villains use it to manipulate the actions of others, to spread panic and lies, and to promote their own selfish agendas. Any sane, judicious person would treat the power of telepathy with caution, forethought, and respect for others.

E-mail and social media are the contemporary equivalent of telepathy.

Think about it:

Telepathy is the virtually instantaneous transmission of thoughts or feelings from one person to another, sometimes at distances of thousands of miles. Telepathic messages can vary in content, from coherent, well-articulated statements, to bits of ungrammatical, ambiguous phrases, to images or even streams of images. Some telepaths have finely-tuned control over their abilities; they send out messages only to particular people and only with precise meanings, and they have the ability to block their own reception of unwelcome messages from strangers or the ill-intentioned. Other telepaths are undisciplined, blasting whatever ideas or fancies come to them out to the rest of the world, with no regard for utility, privacy, or decorum, and indiscriminately riffling through whatever communications they pick up from the outside world. Telepathic messages can lead to a form of groupthink, for good or evil — facilitating creativity and the rapid sharing of ideas by essentially linking minds together, or fanning the flames of anger and distrust through the poorly considered dissemination of unfiltered, irrational notions.

Now, what part of that does not sound like e-mail and social media?

So, to make smart choices about sending or sharing messages electronically at work, ask yourself: Is this the kind of message I would want to shoot directly into someone else’s mind? Would it be the kind of message I would want someone else to shoot directly into my mind? Before you forward that cute message from your mom, for example, imagine yourself at your desk, focused intently on drafting a precisely-worded contractual provision, when suddenly a co-worker beams a collection of images from his mom directly into your skull. You grab your head in anguish as the vision of 28 unrealistically grumpy and anxious cats chases reason and logic from your mind. Is that the kind of thing you’d want to subject your co-workers to?

Another sense in which it can be helpful to think of e-mail as a kind of telepathy is in its ability to instantaneously connect people with a meaningful relationship. We have all heard stories, for example, about twins who live hundreds of miles apart, but each mysteriously knows when the other is in distress. What is truly moving about such stories is the certainty that each twin has in the strength of the connection — if one twin is missing and believed dead, for example, the other might say, “I know she’s still alive — I’d have felt something if she were gone.”

This is a perfectly human response, and it is wise to keep in mind that it plays out in the office, too. If you are communicating via e-mail with a client or a colleague or a boss about a project of mutual interest, the ease with which you fire off a quick message asking for needed data or reporting success in overcoming one hurdle will quite naturally foster the assumption on the part of the recipient that there is now a kind of connection between the two of you. With that connection in place, they will take for granted that if anything of significance to the project occurs — good or bad — they will certainly hear about it from you. “I know she’ll have the project completed on time tomorrow — I’d have heard something if she were running late.” When you have the ability to share information with virtually the speed of thought, there will be an expectation that you share all relevant information.

Still, when styling your messages to your co-workers, remember that an e-mail is not actually some kind of mind meld. Receipt of a message does not magically open a connection between your mind and the recipient’s, and insure that the recipient will comprehend your intended meaning. Even in fiction, telepathic messages can be jumbled, cut short, or vague, leaving themselves open to multiple interpretations. If you want someone else to understand what you are thinking, you must remember that they are not the one thinking it. Be careful when you use abbreviations, when you make references to earlier messages, or when you bring people into the middle of an existing conversation. Even though e-mail and social media can be like a kind of telepathy, it’s still important to make sure that any messages you send are sent mindfully.

Telepathy is a wondrous and dangerous power. Use your electronic telepathy only for good, and you can perform heroically.