Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 36;   September 5, 2001: Email Happens

Email Happens

by

Email is a wonderful medium for some communications, and extremely dangerous for others. What are its limitations? How can we use email safely?

Jenn was puzzled. Benson, the only one left who could keep the creaky old payroll system alive, had just requested a transfer. At first, Benson had wanted to work with Fran on the new payroll system. Travel budgets being as tight as they were, Jenn had accepted Fran's suggestion that she and Benson work out the specs of the new system in email. The next thing Jenn knew, Benson wanted out of the group. What went wrong? Email.

A bumper stickerThere ought to be a bumper sticker: Email Happens.

Email is great for making appointments, distributing agendas, and even brainstorming. It's less effective for discussing complex problems, soothing hurt feelings, and resolving conflict. Yet we're still surprised when email discussions go awry. What are the limitations of email? And how can we use email safely?

When compared with face-to-face communication, email has important limitations. Recognizing them is a key to using email safely.

Save tender subjects for the phone or face-to-face
As you type, you can't tell what reaction you're getting. When you talk with people face-to-face, you can detect reactions — facial expressions, body language, breathing, voice tone, even silence. You can spot trouble, and you can make mid-course corrections. In email, you can't.
Be brief
The cycle time of email exchanges is long. Even when email is fast, the cycle might be ten minutes or longer. In face-to-face communications, the cycle time can be less than a second. To compensate for the delays of email, we send longer messages, which creates risk. If you offend someone face-to-face, you find out quickly, and that limits the damage. In email, we sometimes exchange whole screenfuls, and if someone is offended early in a message, the offense only grows with each paragraph.
Use smileys and a conversational tone
For discussing
complex problems,
soothing hurt feelings,
and resolving conflict,
using email is like
fighting fire
with gasoline
When most of us learned to write, we learned formal writing — proper grammar, fancy vocabulary. In email, that style sounds stiff, and it creates barriers between you and your readers. To sound more conversational, use short sentences, contractions, and sentence fragments. Like this. Beware of sarcasm — your readers might not get it. Use smileys to make sure.
Interpret email in the most positive way possible
The sender is probably saying something nice, rather than delivering a cleverly disguised insult, because — sadly — most of us no longer write well enough to disguise insults cleverly. And I don't mean that in an insulting way.

Email is to true communication what fast food is to fine restaurant fare. I'd go for fast food at the end of a bike ride. On Valentine's Day, or for an anniversary, fast food just will not do. Don't even try it. Go to top Top  Next issue: September Eleventh  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

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Humor is fun — that's why they call it "funny." If you add humor to your own work environment, you'll reduce your level of stress, increase your creativity, and drive your enemies nuts.
The ruins of the Temple of Apollo at DelphiOn Advice and Responsibility
Being asked for advice can be an affirming experience, but actually giving advice can sometimes entail risk. How can this happen, and what choices do we have?
Brian Urquhart of the Office of the UN Under-Secretaries Without Porfolios. (1 January 1956)Staying in Abilene
A "Trip to Abilene," identified by Jerry Harvey, is a group decision to undertake an effort that no group members believe in. Extending the concept slightly, "Staying in Abilene" happens when groups fail even to consider changing something that everyone would agree needs changing.
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Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each other, we can all help prevent trouble.
A Bengal TigerDealing with Deniable Intimidation
Some people use intimidation so stealthily that only their targets recognize the behavior as abusive or intimidating. Targets are often so frustrated, angered, and confused that they cannot find suitable responses.

See also Emotions at Work and Writing and Managing Email for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Five almondsComing October 25: Workplace Memes
Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportAnd on November 1: Risk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep? Available here and by RSS on November 1.

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