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:

FeedbackFeedback Fumbles
"Would you like some feedback on that?" Uh-oh, you think, absolutely not. But if you're like many of us, your response is something like, "Sure, I'd be very interested in your thoughts." Why is giving and receiving feedback so difficult?
Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launchUnintended Consequences
Sometimes, when we solve problems, the solutions create new problems that can be worse than the problems we solve. Why does this happen? How can we limit this effect?
A portion of The Art of War, written in Tangut scriptCompulsive Talkers at Work: Power
Compulsive talkers are unlikely to change their behavior in response to your polite (or even impolite) requests. In this second part of our exploration, we consider the role of power — both personal and organizational.
A remorseful dogWorkplace Remorse
Remorse is an unpleasant emotion. But it need not be something we suppress or avoid. It can provide a path to a positive learning experience that adds meaning to life.
A red molded plastic zipperPersonal Feasibility Decisions
When considering whether to exploit a rare but desirable opportunity, there is a risk that desire can overcome good sense. Having at hand a predefined framework for making such decisions reduces the risk of blundering by acting in haste.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

What most of us think of when we think of checklistsComing February 28: Checklists: Conventional or Auditable
Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938And on March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.

Coaching services

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

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