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A lot of people prefer to use email as a workplace communication tool. Many people will tell you it simplifies things, is quicker and doesn’t leave a lot of room for prolonged discussion or debate like phone calls or face-to-face communication do. While this may seem to be true, these things are actually some of the downsides of using email for work communication.
I’m not an overly enthusiastic fan of the phone as a means of communication. I have a tough time figuring out how to get off the phone with people who aren’t good at recognizing the signals that end a conversation and I find phone interviews a little difficult. In a face-to-face conversation, I find it a lot easier to follow the natural tangents and still come back to the original conversation or talking points.
I used to think email was a good compromise because it allowed me to ask what I wanted to ask or say what I wanted to say, read the other person’s response and then follow-up with my thoughts. More recently, I’ve realized there are some significant disadvantages for using email for work related communication.
- Email is emotionless. That means recipients are more likely to ascribe their own emotions to the message. In fact, in an article discussing how emotion is communicated (or miscommunicated) via email, Kristin Byron, a professor at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, found that the inability to use nonverbal cues in email makes misinterpretation of the intended emotion much more likely. Recipients often interpret positive emails as neutral and neutral emails as having negative emotional connotations.
- People tend to drop the niceties in work emails. It’s very poor social etiquette to start a telephone or face-to-face conversation without a simple greeting or “How are you?” I’ve received a number of emails that jump right into “I need this from you” without even so much as a “Hi.” Even the emails I’ve sent that start out with some small talk sometimes seem stilted or as if I’m trying too hard to find a gentle way into a conversation.
- It’s not always easy to know when the conversation is over. I struggle with this and I’m sure others do too. Once the meat of the discussion is complete, when do you stop the conversation? How many times do you have to email back a “thank you” before it’s too much? What if somebody is expecting a response from you and you didn’t think it required one? This can easily lead to misunderstandings about your commitment to a project or whether you’re going to be a team player.
Ideally, face-to-face communication would be the best way to conduct business. Unfortunately, with global workplaces and a tremendous increase in telecommuting, that’s not always an option. There are a few thing you can do to help, though.
Firstly, brush up on your professional email etiquette. Secondly, use the mnemonic W.A.I.T. Introduced on Psychology Today’s blog as a way to help teens think before they email, I think it has fantastic workplace applications as well.
WAIT stands for: Wide audience, Affect, Intent and Today. Think of it as a high-tech version of looking before you leap. The idea is to ask yourself:
1. Would I say the same thing in front of a wide audience or assembly of people?
2. What’s my emotional state and would it affect what I’m about to say?
3. Is my intent going to be clearly understood or is it open to interpretation?
4. Can this wait until tomorrow or does it need to be sent today?
Though it may not solve all your communication issues, it’s a start. What other ways do you know of to combat the downsides of email in the workplace?