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Volume 24, Issue 2;   January 10, 2024: Six Traps in Email or Text: II

Six Traps in Email or Text: II


Collaboration requires communication. For many, communicating often takes place in email and text message systems. But much of the effort expended in communication is dedicated to resolving confusions that we created for ourselves. Here are four examples.
Stela of Minnakht, chief of the Egyptian scribes, during the reign of Ay (c. 1321 BCE)

Stela of Minnakht, chief of the Egyptian scribes, during the reign of Ay (c. 1321 BCE). Stelae are usually carved or inscribed stone slabs or pillars used for commemorative purposes. Although they are essentially text messages, they don't represent components of conversations in the sense that modern text messages do, because there is no conversation partner capable of responding.

Image (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported by Clio20 courtesy Wikimedia.

If you've ever felt a twinge of regret after clicking "Send," or if you've ever had to send a text message to correct what AutoCorrect did to what you actually typed, you're familiar with some of the traps that await you in email or text messaging systems. Last time I described a procedure for reducing the frequency of incidents like these. In essence, the strategy reduces the error rate by adjusting your approach to using these email or text messaging systems.

In this post, I describe four more examples of traps, and how to avoid them.

Writing to be funny
Writing to be funny is *difficult*. The difficulty might trace to the narrowness of the margin between humor and truth. That might be why the only thing worse than humor that falls flat is humor that's misunderstood as serious and which is then taken as insulting.
Unless your correspondent is a close pal, or you are yourself a professional comedy writer, writing to be funny is risky. You can manage the risk somewhat with emojis, but using emojis to indicate humor is roughly equivalent to writing, "I thought I was saying something funny, but just in case, I'm including this little cartoon to indicate 'this is supposed to be funny.'" That kind of note undermines the humor.
It's OK to be funny in email or text messaging. Just be sure to give message composition the effort and time humor requires.
Asking, "Let me know if X"
To set a Let-Me-Know trap for yourself, for example, advise your correspondent, "If you see any problems with this, let me know." That might be safe if you're communicating with a friend or someone who wants to be helpful. But it's risky if your correspondent doesn't care, or is abusive, or is seeking revenge, or is just plain mean. In those cases, your correspondent can choose not to respond at all unless the condition X is met. Consider our example, "If you see any problems with this, let me know." In this case, your correspondent would feel no obligation to send a "looks ok" response. You'd receive a response only if there's a problem. That's fine, if that's what you intend. But often people who express a Let-Me-Know request do expect a response of some kind whether or not there is a problem. To avoid this trap, express the request as "Let me know either way, if you see a problem or not."
Using terms that are familiar but not uniformly defined
Using terms that lack a single universal definition can lead to confusion. Examples that generally mean the end of the business day, but which are ambiguous, include COB (close of business), EOB (End of Business), EOD (End of Day), COP (Close of Play), and EOP (End of Play). The source of the ambiguity is that most organizations don't define these terms precisely.
Modern Unless your correspondent is a close pal,
or you are yourself a professional comedy
writer, writing to be funny is risky
work patterns that lead to ambiguity about the end of the business day include working from home, working at different sites or for different employers with different business hours, and working across time zones.
In the end-of-day example, to avoid the ambiguity trap, you can be specific about the time: "1700 Eastern," for example. Or you can cite the time using Team Standard Time, which is a predefined time zone you previously agreed to use for citing times.
Sending ambiguous correction messages
After you've sent a message, you might suddenly realize that it's incorrect in an important way. Perhaps it could be misinterpreted or maybe it contains outdated information. If the erroneous elements are important enough, sending a correction message is appropriate. A common error in correction messages is failing to clearly identify the message or messages that are being corrected.
Provide unambiguous identification of the message you're correcting. Include the recipients or recipient lists, sender, time sent, date sent, and message subject line (if any).
One more point. If the correction applies to only a part of the message, clearly indicate which part. Examples: "The second paragraph," or "the reference to butterflies should have been orange butterflies.

Last words

One way to reduce errors in messaging is to make templates for frequently sent messages (or portions of messages). Most email clients and many text-messaging systems have template facilities. For a more specific approach to error reduction, track the errors you make. Awareness of the traps that caught you in the past is your best defense against repetition. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: On Miscommunication  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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