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.
Is 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 welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenkvyIeUNYJrrICMRAner@ChacjWTUxptifsJTgMmcoCanyon.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.
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.
More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Changing the Subject: I
- Whether in small group discussions, large meetings, or chats between friends, changing the subject of
the conversation can be constructive, mischievous, frustrating, creative, tension relieving, necessary,
devious, or outright malicious. What techniques do we use to change the subject, and how can we cope
- When Stress Strikes
- Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But
when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes
in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
- Long-Loop Conversations: Anticipation
- In virtual or global teams, conversations are sources of risk to the collaboration. Because the closed-loop
response time for exchanges can be a day or more, long-loop conversations generate misunderstanding,
toxic conflict, errors, delays, and rework. One strategy for controlling these phenomena is anticipation.
- Listening to Ramblers
- Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners
can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility
- Start the Meeting with a Check-In
- Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things
are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenJGitRMyetTKteqKHner@ChaclLsFsrlCLvqbIIRHoCanyon.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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
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
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.