The Trouble with E-mails

When I was at school (many years ago), I discovered I could always get a group of friends into an animated conversation if we simply brought up the subject of television programmes or music... In fact one of my fondest memories was getting home from school and spending hours on the phone whilst sat at the bottom of the stairs, talking to the friends I’d just spent the day with. Then I started work and the whole world changed. I was introduced to e-mail, which was sold to me as a tool to communicate with one another or a group. From my perspective, it felt like a way of avoiding real communication with people. The staff were even e-mailing their colleagues who sat opposite them…how bizarre I thought!

Don't get me wrong, - I understand and appreciate the value of e-mail but some e-mail cultures are out of control. I know, as you do, organisations can’t survive in the current climate without them, so I'm not saying they are not important.

So with that in mind, let’s get one thing straight first. Although most of this blog addresses itself to the pitfalls and hazards of using e-mail as a primary communication tool in business, electronic communication certainly has been a success for many; and with mobile devices, work that traditionally had to be set aside until an employee could return to the office is now able to be accomplished on the go.

That’s a pretty potent upside. Now for the downside. In my experience—and in the experience of many others with whom I've talked—the tone and texture of e-mails can often replace the intent to communicate in a silken fashion with something that reads more like electronic sand paper!

Jokes—even those with smiley faces—are often misinterpreted. Overly short e-mails can seem arrogant or uninformative. Overly long e-mails often aren’t read. Lack of reasonable grammar and punctuation can cause confusion. Complicated thoughts that involve nuanced wording can provoke misunderstandings.  In fact a number of people I chatted with indicated that they turn away from the keyboard and pick up the telephone when they realise they’re having difficulty making their message clear.

To make matters worse, a fair number of people tend to send e-mails late at night, when they are trying to catch up with work. Most of us aren’t at our most articulate at 10pm and risk bewildering recipients. A codicil to that: some people with supervisors who send inscrutable e-mails in the wee hours feel obliged to read and respond to them, resulting in restless nights with a mobile under a pillow.

When e-mails aren’t thought through carefully, they can require a flurry of subsequent e-mails to clarify matters. The field of e-mails is full of much more hazardous landmines.

One of the most frustrating things about e-mail is that most of them are avoidable. Who hasn’t heard a tale of woe from a colleague who accidentally pressed “reply all” instead of “reply” and inadvertently insulted someone on a long list of recipients? Sometimes in these cases, you pray the recipients have a sense of humour!

Company employees must also be careful to differentiate e-mails that they should send from their personal account from those that they send from their e-mail address at work. There’s a real risk of embarrassment using a company e-mail address to send a silly little poem to a mass of recipients (most of whom, by the way, don’t have the time to read it anyhow).

So what am I saying? Maybe, just maybe, instead of sending that e-mail you could pick up the phone and talk to a human being or worse, dare I suggest, walk over and talk to them?

One final thought, I was talking to my teenage daughters about e-mail only this weekend. I was shocked at their response: “e-mails Dad, they’re for old people!”

So what’s next for communicating in the business world? Who knows, but whatever it is, please don't forget to keep talking to people!

If you’d like to know how we could help you improve the communication in your business call us on 020 7374 5632.