A while back, I read an article in the Christian Science Monitor entitled, “It’s all about me: Why e-mails are so easily misunderstood“. In this article, contributor Daniel Enemark writes, “In a world where businesses and friends often depend upon e-mail to communicate, scholars want to know if electronic communications convey ideas clearly.” The scholars in question conclude that email doesn’t adequately convey emotion, which leads to emails being misunderstood. While I do agree that an email doesn’t contain all of the same visual cues, vocal tones, and subtleties that face-to-face or telephone conversations possess, I don’t agree that this is the primary reason emails are so easily misunderstood.
There are just twenty-six letters in the English alphabet, with a handful of punctuation marks thrown in. How can this adequately express the variety of emotions that a human feels? How can this convey the ‘body language’ you use and interpret when talking with someone face to face? The sad truth is that it can’t capture it 100 percent. However, I don’t believe that we should discount the ability to adequately convey emotion in email. Consider the novelist. He has been writing for hundreds of years with nothing but these letters and punctuation marks to convey his message. I’m sure you’ve read a novel that has evoked or conveyed at least one emotion, and there are many novels that some people would consider more saddening, joyful, or frightening than anything they have ever experienced in their lives. A good many writers depend on their sarcasm coming across accurately in their writing – people like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett wouldn’t be selling the millions of volumes they do if this wasn’t possible. While I don’t expect people to write emails on the level of professional novelists, I do believe that I’m on to something here: the written word can and does convey emotion, and this applies to email just as it does to any other form of writing.
So, the key to effective email is good writing. But people don’t tend to write very well when composing email. Why is that? Enemark hits the nail on the head when he notes that “the prospect of instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness.” We think that the email needs to get out right away, so we write quickly, not taking into consideration such matters as grammar, punctuation, expressive language, and vocabulary. All of those lessons that we learned in school (if people have remembered them at all) go right out of the window. Enemark does mention some tips for improving your email technique: “To avoid miscommunication, e-mailers need to look at what they write from the recipient’s perspective, Epley says. One strategy: Read it aloud in the opposite way you intend, whether serious or sarcastic. If it makes sense either way, revise.” This is great advice, and I would broaden it to say that we should generally be more considerate of what we write in emails, and slow down when writing them… at least at first. After some practice, you should develop the ability to write thoughtful, well-composed emails without having to spend too much time on them. But the key is that you have to practice. And the only way to practice is to write email. But Enemark suggests that in some situations, you begin correspondence by picking up the phone and calling someone. Sure, that will make things easier at the start, but it’s not going to help you develop your email skills. If you have trouble expressing yourself through email, it’s not because it is an ineffective medium. It’s because you haven’t had enough practice and haven’t convinced yourself that it will be worth it to get better at writing email.
So why should you even try to improve your email skills? Let’s review some of the advantages of email for your important communications.
- Email gives you the time to sit down and think about what you are writing. You can essentially read over everything that you want to say before you say it. Compare this to spoken communication, where as soon as a word is said, it is out of your mouth and you cannot take it back. Even if you have rehearsed a conversation before you have it, you may still misspeak. It’s true that if you are too hasty in sending an email, you could end up with the same problem. That is why, as I mentioned earlier, you need to slow down and think about your email. This may be difficult and time-consuming at first, but after a lot of practice, you will develop better and faster techniques, while still being thoughtful and considerate while writing your emails.
- The process of writing an email can eliminate the need to send an email at all. For example, if you are writing to someone (a company, organization, or independent consultant, perhaps) to request assistance with a problem you are having, make sure that you include a thorough explanation of the problem, along with all of the details relevant to the issue. Chances are, while you are writing all of the facts down into your email, something may click in your mind and you may see the solution right in front of you. If that doesn’t happen, then you are still in good shape because you have given the recipient of your email a thorough and detailed explanation of your problem, and they will be better able to assist you.
- Email keeps a written record of your communications. This can be valuable if you are trying to recall something that was said a long time ago. Since most email applications have a search feature, you can simply search for the relevant text from a message, and the message will be displayed on screen for you. Email records can also be useful in disputes with companies, organizations, or other individuals. Email records can even be printed out if necessary (though I don’t recommend this – why clutter up your physical environment with paper, and waste natural resources at the same time?).
- Email can be done at your pace and on your timetable. You can check your email as frequently or as infrequently as you like. There is no need to interrupt your work flow to answer an email, whereas a phone call or a face-to-face confrontation must be dealt with immediately. Of course, this doesn’t work if you have your email set to alert you whenever a new message arrives. Later on, I’ll discuss some tips for dealing with this issue.
Hopefully you’re convinced that email is worthwhile. If not, feel free to communicate in whatever manner works best for you. However, you’re probably still going to want to email people from time to time, so keep reading. I’ve put together some tips for writing better email and making the whole email process easier to handle.
- If you are writing an emotional email, and you’re worried that it will be taken the wrong way, try writing a first draft and addressing it to yourself. Send the email off, and then when it comes back to your inbox, read it as though you were the other person. If you feel that it could be changed to be better understood, make some changes, and send it to yourself again. Repeat this until the email comes out just right. It might even turn out that you really don’t want to send the email after reading it several times, potentially avoiding an embarassing situation.
- Even better than the above would be to send the email to a trusted friend who is not involved in the situation in question. Have them read it over and tell you what they think about it. You may have developed an emotional attachment to the situation, and may not be thinking clearly. Some third party advice would be valuable.
- You’re not going to want to use email if your inbox is constantly full, and you feel overwhelmed with the amount of mail you need to deal with. If that is the case with you, then you need to develop a system to help you make decisions on what to do with your email. I would highly recommend looking at 43Folders’ inbox zero project for lots of good information. Most of the tips on 43Folders are based around the ideas from David Allen’s personal productivity book, Getting Things Done. While I don’t personally have a need for a system as robust as the one he presents in his book, 43Folders has done an excellent job at breaking his system down into individual components from which you can pick and choose. That being said, if you are completely overwhelmed with email (and with all of your other daily tasks), reading and implementing GTD might be a good idea.
- Consider learning touch typing if you don’t know it already. Even if you do know it, you might want to brush up on your skills and be mindful of your technique. Being a fast typist will save you a lot of time when writing emails. In addition, many people use too much force when typing on a keyboard, which causes muscle and tendon strain, and generally makes typing a much less pleasant experience.
- If you don’t feel that your writing is conveying the appropriate emotion, consider using ‘textual’ visual cues, such as smileys. People are often too quick to write smileys off as cutesy symbols, but in reality they are one of the most useful ways to convey emotion and intention in an email, particularly if you find that a passage is too ambiguous in its pure written text form. True, smileys are not as expressive as a human face, but they are better than nothing at all. The key is that you understand what they mean and use them appropriately. You might want to check out this smiley guide if you are unsure of the meaning of various smileys.
- Practice, practice, practice! You won’t get better at writing email if you don’t write it!
I hope that this discussion will enable you to get the most out of your email experience. I use email every day, and it is my preferred form of communication. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reply to this post…. or…. send me an email. 🙂 Just make sure that it’s written well. 😉