Emails seem to have become one of our major methods of communicating – what a shame! They may seem convenient and fast, but they are not really communication. The written word is only 7% of our total communication, which means that the receiver has to interpret the remaining 93% of the communication. The room for misinterpretation here is enormous!
Now I’m not saying that emails aren’t useful: they serve well as a quick way of conveying simple information, such as time and place for meetings, or as confirmation that you’ve received something, or to remind someone of something you’ve agreed verbally.
However, we all send them for many other purposes, and this is where they aren’t so useful. How many emails do you receive that you consider a waste of time, or that put your back up?
- There are those where someone is covering their back: they send them to say, ‘I’ve told you about it, so you can’t complain you didn’t know’.
- There are those that are passing the buck: ‘ I’ve put the action in your court now’.
- There are those which seem almost rude in their terseness – no ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ or ‘would you mind..’ – just ‘do this’.
- There are those which seem to imply that the other person is upset: ‘why haven’t you..’ or ‘I’m not going to..’
When you stop and look at the emails you receive, there are very few of them that reflect how that person would actually talk to you. Even if you only receive one email that puts your back up, it can colour the way you read the others you receive and put you in the mood to interpret more negatively. And this is before we even look at the two other negative aspects of email communication: speed of response expected, and sheer volume received.
Because emails are instant, there is often a pressure to respond pretty much immediately. I have certainly received phone calls asking why I hadn’t responded to an email sent two hours previously, and had a shocked reaction when I’ve said that I haven’t seen it yet. We have a ping on our computers and phones to tell us something has arrived in the in-box, and many of us have learnt to respond like Pavlov’s dog to its call. This is a constant distraction from whatever we are doing at the time, dividing your attention and making it hard to focus on anything. Stopping to answer immediately means that we are responding from a distracted state of mind.
And then there’s the number of emails most people receive – it’s a deluge in most organisations. That in itself is daunting, before we even get to trying to interpret their tone or respond immediately!
So what’s the solution?
Begin by looking at your own part in creating this over-use of emails. Before you send anything, ask yourself if this would be more appropriately dealt with face-to face, or at least over the phone. If there is a danger of misinterpretation, or you are likely to set off a ping-pong game of mails – you know, when they keep going back and forth between you! – maybe you would save time, energy and relationship by just talking to each other.
If you are copying it to other than the main recipient(s), check that’s really necessary. Those copied in emails are often just deleted and rarely elicit a positive response in the recipients.
And if you are just giving simple information, and do think it’s a useful email, consider putting in that extra sentence that gives it the personal touch, or a suggestion of helpfulness or courtesy, to give it a positive tone.
Once you have reduced your own role in making emails an irritating and negative part of our work lives, you can begin to manage those that are sent to you.
- Turn your ping off. If you do receive some emails that are genuinely requiring instant answers, check every 30 minutes, and set up an automatic folder for them, so that is all you check.
- Have times at regular intervals in the day when you check emails, maybe every couple of hours – and allow time for it in your diary.
- When you think someone is being terse in an email, phone them or go and see them, to find out what’s going on, and to actively turn the tone around. Assume it’s your misinterpretation, give them the benefit of the doubt – they may just be overwhelmed with emails!
- When you think this is likely to be a to-and-fro exchange of emails, arrange to meet or talk on the phone instead.
- If you are going to just delete the email, perhaps you could unsubscribe, or courteously suggest that you don’t need to be on this mailing list.
Emails were a great invention. They allow us to exchange simple information quickly and easily. They were designed to be a useful servant, not a daunting master. Get them back into perspective and they become positive again.