Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Trouble With E-Mail

How many e-mails do you get every day? I receive around 150 messages a day, and the majority of them require some sort of response or action. I’d bet it’s the same for most writers, especially those of us working primarily on the Internet. For press releases, news flashes, and notices about library books that are due, e-mail is great. I can take care of those messages at any time of day or night with a few clicks. Most of the time, e-mail is an effective way to communicate. But like most utilitarian written communication, e-mail has one glaring deficiency: it can’t convey tone of voice, facial expression, or body language. Writers know the importance of non-verbal cues—when we’re writing narratives, we describe those things. When we’re responding to e-mails, however, that’s not usually the case.

You’ve probably read that up to 93% of communication is non-verbal. This number comes from studies at UCLA and if you Google “93 communication nonverbal” you’ll see that a whole bunch of people have been working hard to clarify or even debunk this finding. Their assertion is that this misunderstood statistic makes a blanket statement about all communication when it only applies to certain circumstances. If you’ve ever had an ugly e-mail exchange with someone, however, you know that there are plenty of instances in which that 93% thing holds true. That’s why we put in little smiley icons in our e-mails or write LOL. Sarcasm, humor, and witty remarks—minus body language and tone of voice—can often come across as just plain rude. I once had a terrible e-mail snafu with a boss (complicated by her decision to hit “reply to all” so everyone could read her cutting comments to me) because she interpreted my statements as insubordinate. I almost quit over that e-mail. That experience taught me some valuable e-mail lessons that I use every day:

For professional e-mails:

• Leave out humor, sarcasm, or witty remarks. Cheerful is acceptable. Snarky is not.
• Take a deep breath and wait before responding to an e-mail that sounds ugly. Double the wait time if it’s your boss.
• Concentrate on the words alone. Totally suspend conclusions beyond a strict interpretation of just the words.
• When responding, keep it short, simple and professional. Do not try to slide in a dig at perceived insults.

For personal e-mails:

• Ask for clarification on comments that sound funky. “Did you mean,” or “Is everything okay,” or any other variation will do.
• If it sounds really awful, pick up the phone and call.
• When attempting humor, be clear that you’re being a smartie and not a jerk. Use some smiley icons, LOL, or anything else that communicates “I am joking.”
• Call them. Seriously. Before they un-friend you on Facebook.
Photo courtesy of Chelsea Oakes

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