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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Where There's Smoke There's EmailAnd if you have organizational responsibility, you can help transform the culture to make more effective use of email. You can reduce volume while you make content more valuable. You can discourage email flame wars and that blizzard of useless if well-intended messages from colleagues and subordinates. Read Where There's Smoke There's Email to learn how to make email more productive at the organizational scale — and less dangerous. Order Now!

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          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.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.

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

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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

What's in it for him?Beyond WIIFM
Probably the most widely used tactic of persuasion, "What's In It For Me," or WIIFM, can be toxic to an organization. There's a much healthier approach that provides a competitive advantage to organizations that use it.
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Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who try to extract that information use techniques based on misdirection. Here are some of them.
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In well-facilitated meetings, facilitators work hard to ensure that all participants have opportunities to contribute. The story is rather different for many meetings, where getting into the conversation can be challenging for some.
Senator Jeff Sessions grills Budget Director Sylvia Burwell on President Obama's 2015 Budget March 5, 2014That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I
In tense situations, one person might question another. As the respondent replies, the questioner interjects, "That was a yes-or-no question." The intent is to trap the respondent. How does this work, and how can the respondent escape the trap?
Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, in 1975Obscuring Ignorance
Some people are uncomfortable revealing that they have limited understanding of topics related to the issues at hand. They can't allow themselves to ask, "Pardon me, what does X mean?" Here are a few of the techniques they use to obscure their ignorance.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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