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

Email Happens

by

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:

A shouting matchAvoid Typing Under the Influence
When we communicate, we can't control how other people interpret our communications. Accidental offense is inevitable, and email is especially likely to produce examples of this problem. What can we do as members of electronic communities when trouble erupts?
Elevator doors at the Spalding Building, Portland, Oregon (2012)Demanding Forgiveness
Working together under stress, we do sometimes hurt each other. Delivering apologies is a skill critical to repairing those hurts and maintaining our relationships.
Circular reasoningBegging the Question
Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
A straw-bale houseResponding to Threats: I
Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
The John Hollis Bankhead Lock and Dam on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County, AlabamaFirst Aid for Wounded Conversations
Groups that meet regularly sometimes develop patterns of tense conversations that become obstacles to forward progress. Here are some ideas for releasing the tension.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treatComing June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
A VoiceStation 500 speakerphone by PolycomAnd on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

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