Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 36;   September 5, 2001: Email Happens

Email Happens

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Email is a wonderful medium for some communications, and extremely dangerous for others. What are its limitations? How can we use email safely?

Jenn was puzzled. Benson, the only one left who could keep the creaky old payroll system alive, had just requested a transfer. At first, Benson had wanted to work with Fran on the new payroll system. Travel budgets being as tight as they were, Jenn had accepted Fran's suggestion that she and Benson work out the specs of the new system in email. The next thing Jenn knew, Benson wanted out of the group. What went wrong? Email.

A bumper stickerThere ought to be a bumper sticker: Email Happens.

Email is great for making appointments, distributing agendas, and even brainstorming. It's less effective for discussing complex problems, soothing hurt feelings, and resolving conflict. Yet we're still surprised when email discussions go awry. What are the limitations of email? And how can we use email safely?

When compared with face-to-face communication, email has important limitations. Recognizing them is a key to using email safely.

Save tender subjects for the phone or face-to-face
As you type, you can't tell what reaction you're getting. When you talk with people face-to-face, you can detect reactions — facial expressions, body language, breathing, voice tone, even silence. You can spot trouble, and you can make mid-course corrections. In email, you can't.
Be brief
The cycle time of email exchanges is long. Even when email is fast, the cycle might be ten minutes or longer. In face-to-face communications, the cycle time can be less than a second. To compensate for the delays of email, we send longer messages, which creates risk. If you offend someone face-to-face, you find out quickly, and that limits the damage. In email, we sometimes exchange whole screenfuls, and if someone is offended early in a message, the offense only grows with each paragraph.
Use smileys and a conversational tone
For discussing
complex problems,
soothing hurt feelings,
and resolving conflict,
using email is like
fighting fire
with gasoline
When most of us learned to write, we learned formal writing — proper grammar, fancy vocabulary. In email, that style sounds stiff, and it creates barriers between you and your readers. To sound more conversational, use short sentences, contractions, and sentence fragments. Like this. Beware of sarcasm — your readers might not get it. Use smileys to make sure.
Interpret email in the most positive way possible
The sender is probably saying something nice, rather than delivering a cleverly disguised insult, because — sadly — most of us no longer write well enough to disguise insults cleverly. And I don't mean that in an insulting way.

Email is to true communication what fast food is to fine restaurant fare. I'd go for fast food at the end of a bike ride. On Valentine's Day, or for an anniversary, fast food just will not do. Don't even try it. Go to top Top  Next issue: September Eleventh  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Hard at WorkThe Tweaking CC
When did you last receive an email message with a "tweaking CC"? Probably yesterday. A tweaking CC is usually a CC to your boss or possibly the entire known universe, designed to create pressure by exposing embarrassing information.
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When we depend on praise, positive support or consumption to feel good, we're giving other people or things power over us. Finding within ourselves whatever we need to feel good about ourselves is one path to autonomy and freedom.
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.
A diagram of effects illustrating two more loops in the Restructuring-Fear CycleThe Restructuring-Fear Cycle: II
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Sometimes we must listen attentively to someone with whom we strongly disagree. The urge to interrupt can be overpowering. How can we maintain enough self-control to really listen?

See also Emotions at Work and Writing and Managing Email for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An abandoned railwayComing August 21: Perfectionism and Avoidance
Avoiding tasks we regard as unpleasant, boring, or intimidating is a pattern known as procrastination. Perfectionism is another pattern. The interplay between the two makes intervention a bit tricky. Available here and by RSS on August 21.
A dog playing catch with a discAnd on August 28: Playing at Work
Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean. Available here and by RSS on August 28.

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