E-MAIL Versus Communications

It lurks, waiting for the unsuspecting communicator.  Its disguise, the quick and easy transition of words or documents from one place to another. Yet it has an insidious power that can transform grown men into small minded bullies or professional women into petty tyrants. Yes, I’m talking about e-mail.  If we’re totally honest with ourselves, we would see email for what it really is, a super villain.  I’ve seen the horror it can do.

I’ve had to run down a hallway shouting to colleagues to, “PLEASE STOP SENDING E-MAILS” when a chain of emails with some of our stakeholders across the country escalated into an all out war. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good joke and really, email fights are always funny in retrospect. It is just that when you make your living building relationships, you don’t have much humour for watching years of cultivation, good will and hard work go up in flames because of a few poorly conceived emails. It’s not just your external stakeholders who can be effected by it either. Internal emails are probably among the most prolific contributors to poor moral.

A poorly worded or too widely sent email can spiral a team into chaos. I’ve coached managers on what to say to chronic email abusers and I’ve had to soothe frustrated team members when someone showed disrespect to them in an email. There is also the abusive reply all function. Imagine the chain of events that unfolds when thousands of people receive a shrill email questioning management on a decision that impacted the whole organization. I still wake up screaming.

Or there is the unjustified anger that follows when someone sends an email with directions and subsequently does not get the behavior they want. If I hear one more time, “But I sent them an email!” I may get dangerous. Sending does not mean people received it.  Receiving it doesn’t mean they read it.  Reading it doesn’t mean they understood it.

There are protocols associated with email use that are a Google search away, so I won’t belabor the point here, but keep these lessons in mind.

Lessons Learned

  • Read it out loud, if it sounds obnoxious, it is. Don’t send it.
  • A smiley face after being obnoxious doesn’t make the email less obnoxious.
  • How many people really need to see your message? Do the math and don’t add anyone else.
  • If you’re getting angry, stop emailing, pick up the phone or walk down the hall.
  • If its urgent, important or a risk issue, don’t email, pick up the phone or walk down the hall.
  • E-mail is a temporary short-cut for sharing information, not a substitute for good communications or good relationship management.

So what about you, got any e-mail nightmares to share? Do you LOVE email or are you careful user?

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About Debra Yearwood

Experienced communications and public relations executive who manages challenges with an eye on outcomes and a sense of humour. Learn more about how I think at https://commstorm.com/ Learn more about my experience at ca.linkedin.com/in/debrayearwood/
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34 Responses to E-MAIL Versus Communications

  1. I’ve always hated email setups where the ‘reply all’ is selected as the default option. I change that now so that I have to choose to send it out to everyone rather than just the original sender. If people made sure that ‘reply all’ wasn’t their default option, I think it would cause a lot less hassle. I also really agree with the walking down the corridor option when possible – it’s good to get you up from your desk and moving around too.

  2. Great post! Thank you very much. I worked in a large office building when email first started. My strategy for internal networking at the time was to make a friend in every department. This meant that when I was looking for a resource from a different/”new” department I walked over to introduce myself. This meant the subsequent emails did not come in from the cold. As a freelancer nowadays with clients and contacts more than a department’s distance away, I do bear that in mind when sending an email from the first time.

  3. I have seen emails go very wrong in the office. Many a coworker have sent an email or two because they were feeling some kind of way and put themselves in some bad situations. I like a good joke as well but I don’t like all of the reply all’s or excessive joke or chain emails that are sent. Sometimes it is hard to tell someone’s tone in an email that is why it is very important to read and reread and maybe have someone else read your email before you send it.

  4. Writing as in composing an email, affords the sender time to think about what needs to be said and how best to say it. It gives the writer time to think before they speak. I have had falling outs with people from time to time because of emails that have been sent or received. The problem with email is that you really need to be extra careful because the recipient cannot see your facial expressions or body language. This makes your tone and intention more subject to the imagination of the reader. I think a good rule of thumb is not to type while under the influence, meaning, don’t send an email when your angry, etc. We can always compose an email and then save it as a draft to be looked at a bit later, when it can then revised before sending.

  5. Leora says:

    So true, Debra! Email is great for the sorts of things you need to get in writing. When I am working on a project, I spell it out in email. However, when a situation gets at all emotional or there is the possibility of being misunderstood, I prefer communicating in person or if that is not possible using the phone. It’s not the medium of email that is the problem – it’s learning how to relate to another person and get oneself heard, as well as hearing others properly.

    • I agree Leora, there is no place for emotions in an email. No matter what, they get things bent out of shape. Even if you are genuinely angry and want to express it, email freezes that anger and then holds it in place indefinitely. Long after things would naturally cool off the email propels them to greater heights.

  6. I agree with you, Debra, that it’s much better to pick up the phone or personally visit someone if there is a misunderstanding or disagreement. Don’t send an email. You can’t see visual expressions or body language in an email. However, the tone of voice comes through which can be shrill, angry, sarcastic, condescending and just plain wrong. I had a rule when I managed an account team at my agency. After too make back-and-forth emails with the client, pick up the phone to avoid misunderstandings.

    • Jeannette when I worked directly with health service providers we applied the same principles when we were dealing with crisis situations as you did with managing clients. There was an email to notify everyone about what was going on but then we had to get on the phone or meet face to face. It was just too easy for things to get missed, escalate or go unsaid if we were on email.

  7. becc03 says:

    Oh, this takes me back.
    When email first came out, I had some really bad experiences. The way you write an email is not necessarily how it is read and interpreted by another. The amount of times I had to have a face to face with a recipient to ask them to please read it as I would say it or explain how it was intended….
    I learned a lot at the time and now re-read everything many times to ensure it cannot be taken out of context.

    • I can be extremely sarcastic, you can imagine what a disaster that is in print, especially if the person doesn’t know you. It’s easy to misinterpret written messages at the best of times, but as you speed up the rate of the exchange it becomes more so. That is one of the things I find so concerning about Twitter exchanges, it’s too easy to write something silly.

  8. Glynis Jolly says:

    My sentiments exactly, Debra. You may want to address this same sort of problem with those who have accounts at Facebook as well. Although Facebook may be a great free way to promote a business or a person, the things I see written on timelines can be extremely questionable up to just being rude and insensitive.

  9. What an awesome post, Debra! You’ve hot the nail on the head with this synopsis of e-mail: “Sending does not mean people received it. Receiving it doesn’t mean they read it. Reading it doesn’t mean they understood it.” That is a brilliant description. I will widely promote this post. Rock on, girl!

  10. Diana says:

    Oh, i can be obnoxious in an email, alright 🙂 But like Jeri, i learned with time to pause before i hit send and if i am rude, obnoxious or something else which i shouldn’t be (even when justified) – i edit, and edit, and edit… But like Jason, i too avoid my phone as much as i can. Working online – email is my main communication channel but i try to wrk with clients through project management tools – to eliminate email.

    In any case, Debra – you are absolutely correct in your observation email has become evil substitue of quality communication. I think there is balance though – although i avoid my phone and prefer written communication, i still have regular meetings with my clients via Skype – to touch base, update each other what’s new, status reports, and so on. It is quicker and “safer” when it’s in real time.

    Hahahaha, just remembered a story from way way back, a friend of mine (she is an American and didn’t know a lot of people from the other side of the ocean) – i was frustrated with her not understanding what i am trying to explain (or with me not being able to explain it properly – who knows?!) and she asked me “are all Europeans like you – capable of shouting via email”? I was like “wait what? i didn’t shout?! i was frustrated but… you are my friend, i certainly didn’t shout!” Now i smile when i think about it – i have come a long way 🙂

    Great post, Debra – sending you some social media love!

    • Diana, a few years ago I was chatting with my webmaster by email when he suddenly sent me an email that said, why are you yelling at me? I had inadvertently hit the caps button and didn’t think anything of it until he explained that caps meant yelling in e-mail world. On reflection I wondered how many angry emails I had accidentally diffused because I didn’t know I was being yelled at and answered with apparent sangfroid. 🙂

  11. As a freelance writer and producer, I’m super-careful with every message I send to a client or potential client. As a mentor once pointed out: “writing reveals intelligence.” To put it in business-speak, every message I send builds or diminishes the perception of my brand; the choice (and responsibility) is all mine.

    Despite the best of intentions, I make mistakes sometimes and they are often funny. I love the Freudian slips the best, such as when I inadvertently left out an “f” in the subject line of a message: “Drat #3″ of Xxxx Speech.” Fortunately, the client knew me well enough to chuckle about it. She was also cursing the project by that point.

    Ultimately, I believe that this kind of informality is the real danger with email: you become less and less careful with regular correspondents, even though you don’t control who they may share messages with. I’ll never know how many people my client shared the “Drat #3” message with, for instance, or whether they, in turn, shared it (along with my name and brand) with others—potential clients.

    • Hahhahahahahahahahhahahahahha…drat, I’ve had that feeling about a project before, I’ll have to remember to do that by-mistake-on-purpose the next time something like that comes up.

  12. jacquiegum says:

    I’ve been begging for years for a sarcasm font. Seriously, if they could “see” the joke in a special font we wouldn’t have this problem! To be honest, I think email has gotten out of control. I’ve seen friendships dissolve over misunderstandings created by email. It does provoke a certain bravado that some folks would never have face-to-face. I often wonder…what are they thinking? Sooner or later, they’ll see this person but I think it provides the ultimate “out”…the whole “WHAT???? I didn’t mean it that way” excuse that makes me want to throw up!!!!” I know of at least one company that has begun to discourage emails in favor of the old fashioned meeting! Excellent topic!!!!!

    • Hahahahahahhahahahahahahahhahahahaha….if you find the sarcasm font please send it to me! I will never understand the rude work email, it’s a closed circuit so no matter what, sooner or later it will bite you in the butt.

  13. I always pause before I hit “send” with an email since I know I have a tendency to take on a really perturbed tone that could rub readers the wrong way (even if that tone is completely justified…) I had to be more mindful when I worked in a school setting. So many people don’t know proper email etiquette. In the last few months, I’ve been added to a handful of mailing lists that I never signed-up for. That always gets my goat.

  14. Bindhurani says:

    I am glad that I don’t have to use email at work place. I am very careful with email and never did “reply all” option. I like texting more than emails. It can create mistakes too, right?

  15. Email is such a bitter sweet form of communication – from overload to obnoxious- I think you covered some really excellent points in what not to send and why. If we just keep in mind that there is a real live person at the other end of the send button, we might be a lot better off.

    • A.K. so true, it’s about remembering that you’re talking to a person not a screen. I also think it helps to remember that the biggest regrets people have at the end of their lives is that they were not kinder.

  16. This is an interesting perspective. Of course my own perspective comes from working in a group of one. If I send myself dirty or bad emails people just look at me funny. Well, if they even know what is going on.

    From the other side of that, I rarely use a phone if I can avoid it. Most of my distance communication happens through email or a texting platform.

  17. Louise says:

    Very good points. I have been accused on occasion by a boss who shall remain nameless (Debra Yearwood) of writing ‘short, snippy’ emails. However, I look upon it as getting to the point without false niceties and saving everyone time. The worst abuse of email I see is use of the reply all button. I remember flurries when 5,000 people in an organization got an email telling someone else not to use reply all. Then the original perpetrator used reply all to apologize to that person and on and on… Didn’t know whether to laugh, curse or cry.

    • Hahhahahahaahahhahhaha…Louise the wonderful part about being in communications is that we get to see all aspects of human beings and you’re right, it’s always a toss up on whether we should laugh, curse or cry, fortunately our default has typically been laughter.

  18. Boy have I seen this in action. I was the victim of a vicious email attack that was sent out to the whole organization. The individual inadvertently sent the email to a list that encompassed all the company employees by mistake. He was angry and hadn’t checked what he was saying and where he was sending it. The response was immediate and swift even before I saw the email myself. HR intervened, the President of the company responded and the individual lost his job. The sad part was, if he had just picked up the phone to talk to me he would have found his perception to be wholly incorrect. Even though he was profusely sorry, it was to late. He lost his job, reputation and was always remembered as the guy who sent “That” email. It was a very hard lesson to learn.

    • That’s awful. Well that was a tough lesson for that employee to learn, but clearly one that he needed to learn. I think it’s fortunate that he was in a setting that meant quick intervention rather than one that would have allowed the abusive behaviour to continue unchecked.

  19. Agree with you and it ties in with people becoming ruder because they are hiding behind a screen. At least some of them would have been more polite face to face.

    Social media and the internet can be even worse. Online bullying and harassment is common all over the world. Sometimes people can slander others without facing the consequences because they route their obnoxious words through TOR or other such services.

    Have to add that the North American/Northern European development of writing emails almost like SMS’s have been a contributing factor when it comes to rude emails. What’s wrong with adding words like please, thank you and polite greetings?

    • It’s sad that so many people feel inclined to misbehave when they put a screen between themselves and their target. I hate the idea that so many people are that small minded, but take solace in the fact that many more are generous and at least polite. 🙂

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