When email first worked its way into most workplaces, it was part of a dedicated system, a set of interconnected computers limited to little more than email itself, with batch runs of data at night and the infamous sprocket paper—like a slightly more flexible telex machine. Then desktop computers became the norm, and finally laptops and smartphones.
Along the way, our relationship with email was gradually transformed. What began as an effort to make communication of written stuff—scientific papers, hard ideas, things that needed to be precisely expressed—easier between scientists became a way for the rest of us to communicate everything in and around the world of work, family, and social relationships.
That’s when the problems began. Soon there was too much of it, all that communication, and at the same time it frequently misfired. We all suffer from information overload. And occasionally, we suffer from its opposite—information deprivation. Waiting for the email that never comes, we experience a peculiarly modern form of the disease that is as old as Adam and Eve—starving for something in the midst of plenty.
We’ve all had our feelings hurt by some email communication, and we probably have hurt other people’s feelings. We’ve revealed in emails some secrets that we shouldn’t have shared, and we’ve been told secrets that we shouldn’t have heard. Email communication, in short, is simultaneously messy, imperfect, overwhelming, and impoverished. It’s too much and too little at the same time. It was begun for a different purpose, was hijacked to fulfill a need for more and faster communication, and became a blunt instrument that no one can do without.
What can you do to anticipate, restore, and otherwise employ email so that it actually works, if not precisely as intended, because it’s too late for that, then at least not in a mutually self-destructive manner?
Don’t use email or other text-based communication media just because they’re the cheapest, easiest, most convenient form of media around. Instead, spend a few moments or, in the case of a team, a few meetings figuring out what you’re trying to do and, accordingly, what form of communication will work best.
Tweeting, for example, has the advantage of immediacy and the overwhelming disadvantage of inadequacy for virtually everything beyond one of those irritating business slogans that are the stuff of everyday chatter on social media.
Don’t use tweets for communicating anything that requires any subtlety at all. Period. Even though Twitter expanded the permitted size of a tweet beyond the original 140 characters, tweets are too ephemeral to be trusted with substantive content. Email can function usefully as part of a communication quiver for a business team that’s separated by geography, but it shouldn’t be the only form. Never use email for emotionally important tasks like beginning relationships or repairing or terminating them.
One of the most irritating features of modern digital life is the last-minute communication. It goes like this. You’re heading to a meeting at 9:00 a.m. Perhaps you’re in traffic, and surreptitiously scanning email in the slowest moments. (Don’t! Put that phone down! You’re a hazard to yourself and others!) At 8:15, you receive the following email:
I’m not sure you’ll have a chance to look at this, but in case you do, here’s a report that could entirely 180 our approach to the client at 9:00 this morning. It’s long at 27 pages, but there’s a three-page summary at the beginning which will give you the gist of it. See you at 9:00 sharp!
The implicit rudeness of this communication—I don’t care enough about you or these matters to give you time to absorb them properly because your opinion doesn’t really matter to me—should make it a no-no for everyone, but we don’t always meet the high standards we set for ourselves, do we? Don’t send last-minute reading bricks to others, and don’t read them if they come from someone else. That’s a rule we all need to live by.
We are all familiar with the perils of the email sent too quickly, hitting the “reply all” button when we meant to reserve that snarky comment for the author of the original email, not the entire team. Or we’ve responded in haste and anger to something and regretted it later. The solution to this problem is pretty simple in theory and tough in practice: self-restraint. Introduce a policy of waiting until you’ve cooled off. Or writing an email and sending it the next day, after you’ve slept on it and had a chance to reread it.
To be able to do that, of course, you need to build back in some of the time that our friction-free universe has allowed us to cut out. The time pressure will never go away, but for any kind of virtual communication (email, text, voice mail, video messages, etc.), the more you can build in a waiting period the less likely you are to send a communication that embarrasses you, ends a relationship, or terminates a career.
Try to use a channel that’s appropriate for a particular message when you need to convey something. Think in terms of a hierarchy. Use a text message to say “running 10 minutes late.” Use an email to say “Attached is the first draft of the report for your consideration.” Use an audio conference to update the team in brief weekly sessions, complete with emotional channels deliberately built back in. Use a video session for deeper discussions, rehearsals, and other more substantial interactions. Finally, if you must communicate delicate, emotional, or otherwise fraught matters via virtual channels, create an additional virtual space for the inclusion and consideration of emotions.
These visual tools are a crude first attempt for people to put back into text messaging and social media the emotions that too often get misinterpreted or left out. Make sure you include a section of your communication where, at the minimum, emotions can be exchanged, with emoji or in some other way. Make it an emotionally safe space if at all possible. And make it a requirement.
The sender needs to indicate how he or she meant the communication to be seen emotionally, both in what emotional state it was sent and in how it’s meant to be received. And the receiver needs a space to show how the message was indeed received.
It may seem clunky at first to force yourself to do this extra emotional work, but when you think about the time, money, and human desperation involved in sending, receiving, and untangling unintentionally hurtful messages, for example, the work is clearly work worth doing. You have to deliberately, and imperfectly, put the body-language channel back in where the virtual world has removed it.
Excerpted from the book Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World. Published with permission from Harvard Business Review Press.