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
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Virtual Communications: II
- Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here's Part
II of some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
- Email Ethics
- Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new
technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil
the society. And so it is with email.
- What, Why, and How
- When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before
the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
- How to Misunderstand Somebody Else
- Misunderstandings are commonplace at work, as in most of the rest of Life. At work, they might be even
more commonplace, because at work it sometimes seems that people are actually trying to misunderstand.
Here's a handy guide for those who want to get better at misunderstanding others.
- Chronic Peer Interrupters: I
- When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption
is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully,
in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 26: Unintended Condescension: II
- Intentionally making condescending remarks is something most of us do only when we lose control. But anyone at any time can inadvertently make a remark that someone else experiences as condescending. We explored two patterns to avoid last time. Here are two more. Available here and by RSS on February 26.
- And on March 4: Workplace 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. Available here and by RSS on March 4.
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