Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 8;   February 20, 2013: On Badly Written Email

On Badly Written Email

by

Even those who aren't great writers do occasionally write clearly, just by chance. But there are some who consistently produce unintelligible email messages. Why does this happen?
William Tecumseh Sherman as a major general in May 1865

William Tecumseh Sherman as a major general in May 1865. The black ribbon of mourning on his left arm is for President Lincoln. General Sherman is famous for having said, upon learning that there were those who wanted to nonimate him for the office of President in the election of 1864, "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected." Such unambiguous statements are so rare in U.S. politics that they are now called Shermanesque statements. Apparently, it was necessary to be so unambiguous, even in 1864, because the population in general, and the press in particular, had grown so accustomed to carefully parsing the statements of public figures. For Gen. Sherman to decline any less explicitly probably would not have been effective.

We rarely need Shermanesque statements at work, but humor can be a useful tool in achieving the required level of clarity. Portrait by Mathew Brady, available at Wikipedia.

Some people write email badly. It's unclear, ambiguous, or just hard to understand. When they speak on the phone, or in person, what they say seems less opaque, because if something isn't clear, you can ask a question, and you get a clarifying answer. No, these people seem to be unclear only in email.

Among those who fairly consistently write unintelligible email messages are those who don't know the language well. They aren't the subjects of this article. Let's consider only those who know the language and who consistently author unintelligible email messages. What's going on?

To understand why these people produce unintelligible email messages, begin by appreciating the advantages ambiguity and opacity offer to senders of such messages.

Insulation from commitment
By avoiding commitment to clear positions, the authors of unclear email messages leave themselves room to maneuver. If one possible interpretation proves wrong or politically undesirable, the author can say, "No, I didn't mean that, I meant this."
Insulation from responsibility
Consider, for example, ambiguous or unclear messages that supposedly contain directions or orders. If the directions are unclear, the author can claim that the recipient misinterpreted them if trouble develops. If the order is unclear, and trouble develops, the giver of the order can claim that the action taken was not the action that was ordered. Ambiguity shelters the author from responsibility.
Ambiguity saves time
Writing withBy avoiding commitment to clear
positions, the authors of unclear
email messages leave themselves
room to maneuver
clarity is difficult. Authors must consider possible misinterpretations of what they write, and devise language that limits the interpretations to those the author intends. Ambiguity is much easier to achieve.
Intimidation offers additional protection
If recipients request clarification, the author can intimidate them: "What part of X don't you understand?" Or, "I thought the message was perfectly clear, but apparently, not for someone like you." Or, "You missed your calling. You should have been a lawyer." (Ineffective for recipients who are lawyers)

The effect on recipients can be maddening. They often know that seeking clarification is risky, but choosing an interpretation that might be wrong is even riskier. They huddle among themselves, working out scenarios and hoping they'll discover the right interpretation, or maybe one that's less risky than the others. They dare not seek telephonic clarification, because they need evidence justifying the choice they ultimately make. A phoned request for clarification doesn't help.

There is a tactic that sometimes works. Recipients can send the author of the ambiguous message an email message that reads, in essence, "OK, got it. We'll do X, exactly as you suggest in your message below." The author of the ambiguous message then has a choice: (a) approve the interpretation; (b) correct it, again ambiguously; or (c) deny receiving the message. If the sender chooses (a), and X is unambiguous, the recipient has the clarification sought. If the sender chooses (b), the recipient can repeat the tactic. After a pattern of responses of type (c) is established, they lose credibility.

Posting this article where all can see it can help, too. Everyone will know who this article is about. Go to top Top  Next issue: More Limitations of the Eisenhower Matrix  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenFFMmWQUDuqcLylZhner@ChacScKPxxWvhaTZcfkPoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

A rock climber in Joshua Tree National Park, United StatesLet Me Finish, Please
We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
A shouting matchCan You Hear Me Now?
Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the message that you actually did hear.
An iceberg in Antarctica's Gerlache Strait, March 1962The Uses of Empathy
Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
Shaking an orange treeWhen You Aren't Supposed to Say: III
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here are some of their techniques.
A dense Lodgepole Pine stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United StatesConversation Despots
Some people insist that conversations reach their personally favored conclusions, no matter what others want. Here are some of their tactics.

See also Effective Communication at Work, Workplace Politics and Writing and Managing Email for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A shark of unspecified speciesComing May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
Jump ball in a game of basketballAnd on May 9: Unethical Coordination
When an internal department or an external source is charged with managing information about a large project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior. What is the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur? Available here and by RSS on May 9.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbreneeFZZUgEWNmBmMXkner@ChacPVVMAqCnwErnlkNcoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.