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

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:

One negative outweighs a world of positivesWhen It Really Counts, Be Positive
When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one. We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
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?
A happy dogWhy Dogs Wag Their Tails
If you've ever known a particular dog at all well, you've probably been amazed at how easy it is to guess a dog's mood, even though dogs can't speak. Perhaps what's more amazing is that it's so difficult to guess a person's mood, even though humans can speak.
Too much time on his handsHurtful Clichés: II
Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Here's Part II of a series exploring some of these clichés.
Six atoms in a Schrödinger "cat" statePreventing Toxic Conflict: I
Conflict resolution skills are certainly useful. Even more advantageous are toxic conflict prevention skills, and skills that keep constructive conflict from turning toxic.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesComing October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off GreenlandAnd on November 3: Way Over Their Heads
For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

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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.

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