Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 24, Issue 1;   January 3, 2024: Six Traps in Email or Text: I

Six Traps in Email or Text: I


Most of us invest significant effort in communicating by email or any of the various forms of text messaging. Much of the effort is spent correcting confusions caused, in part, by a few traps. Knowing what those traps are can save much trouble.
An old-fashioned typewriter

An old-fashioned typewriter. When sending messages was more difficult than it is today, people took more time with their writing. Now that sending messages is so convenient, we tend to write more carelessly.

Image by G.C., courtesy Pixabay.

Knowing where you're likely to run into trouble is often the only knowledge you need to avoid it. For example, wandering about your residence in the middle of the night in the dark isn't dangerous if you know the layout well, and if you know where you're likely to trip over something. And even a little bit of light helps a lot.

So it is with communicating by email or text message. This post and the next describe a few of the traps most likely to lead to trouble in these text-based communication media. Here are two of them.

Rushing to send
If urgency requires that a message be composed and sent quickly, trading away accuracy for speed is a bad trade. Sending the wrong message quickly doesn't get the job done. I'm not thinking here about typographical errors alone, though they are indeed problematic. Typing "2 PM" when you meant "1 PM" can create a real mess.
But by any If urgency requires that a message be
composed and sent quickly, trading away
accuracy for speed is a bad trade
measure the more serious problems cause lasting damage to relationships. Omitting someone from the "To" list is an example of a minor slip that can have major consequences for relationships.
Following is a procedure for composing the message you actually meant to compose. Note that in some circumstances, it contains a loop from Step 5 back to Step 2.
  1. Write what you meant to write. Of course, you might make mistakes, but we'll get to that next.
  2. Read it after you write it. Make corrections if necessary.
  3. Let some time pass or do something else to freshen your brain. Two minutes is enough, but take more time if the message is really important.
  4. Read the message again. If you find something you want to change, change it.
  5. If you made no changes in Step 2 or Step 4, go to Step 6. If you changed anything in Step 2 or Step 4, set the message aside for a few minutes and do something else to refresh your brain. Then go to Step 2 and resume.
  6. If you get to this point and you feel good about the message, send it.
This process might seem at first to be too cumbersome for urgent messages. But it's way faster than cleaning up the mess that a wrong message can create.
Using relative dates or times
Don't rely on relative indications of dates or times — terms such as today, tomorrow, yesterday, this afternoon, soon, after the staff meeting, and so on. The problem with relative dates and times is that they're subject to misunderstanding when you read the message at some point in the future. In the future, the message is a historical artifact. At that point, the reader is likely researching the history of something. And the reader might not immediately know the ending time of the staff meeting, or what "tomorrow" was when the message was written. Compare these two: "Tomorrow (Wednesday 3 March 1600 Eastern)" and "Tomorrow right after the staff meeting."
Confusion can arise in other ways, too, when dates and times are stated in relative terms. For example, when communicating with people who are several time zones distant, the term "tomorrow" can have multiple meanings. Citing times in specific time zones is usually safe, but you can make the practice even safer by citing times by city rather than time zone. Using a time zone can be a source of risk around the biennial switches to or from summer time. Citing time by city can be safer if everyone knows the time in, say, New York or Bangalore.

Last words

Next time, I'll explore four more traps we might encounter when composing email or text messages.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Six Traps in Email or Text: II  Next Issue

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This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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See also Effective Communication at Work and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

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