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Issue 7.2


Book: E-mail at the Workplace

Issue: 7.2 (January/February 2009)
Author: Marc Zeedar
Article Description: No description available.
Article Length (in bytes): 5,329
Starting Page Number: 10
Article Number: 7202
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Full text of article...

My reaction when I first saw this book was, "Oh, sort of a Netiquette guide to proper email. Nothing I need." But then I started reading and I came away impressed.

What Juan Carlos Jiménez has done here is elucidate the core problems with email communication today. We are not talking about email problems associated with spam (junk mail), the controversy of top posting, use of email signatures, or other stylistic issues. Instead Juan investigates the causes behind non-communication in email.

Why are "clear" email messages misunderstood? Why don't people respond to urgent emails? Why do people react emotionally to emails when that wasn't intended?

Juan backs up his information with considerable research, quoting a variety of studies and even surveys of his own clients to show how much employee time is wasted because of poor and improper email use. Employees waste time writing the emails and then the recipients waste more time managing, reading, and responding. It's a vicious circle and if the trends of increased email use continue, soon there'll be no time for employees to actually work!

One key conclusion is that email is often overused: in many corporations people follow up emails with a phone call just to make sure it was received. Not only does that demonstrate the ineffectiveness of email as a communication method (people are used to their emails being ignored), but it's also redundant: a phone call would have been the better communication medium in the first place.

Juan points out how little of our communication is words (most of the meaning is conveyed via our body language, vocal tone, and other non-verbals). I was aware of that, but I hadn't connected it with email in one important way: because email cannot convey those other meanings it is inherently prone to misunderstanding. One study proved that recipients are only able to accurately guess if a message is sarcastic or serious 50% of the time! Even more disturbing, those recipients thought they had correctly deduced the tone of the message 90% of the time yet they were wrong half the time. If people cannot judge the very different sarcasm or seriousness in an email, how can they interpret subtle shades of meaning?

One fascinating aspect of email communication that I learned is that because email has no emotional context, readers tend to shade the message with their own emotional state. For example, say I email an overworked colleague with the offer to take over a project to reduce his work load. If he's in a bad mood when he reads my message, he might assume I'm insulting him by suggesting he can't do his job and then he'll react negatively to me. If I brought the issue up face-to-face, he can read from my non-threatening body language that I'm just being helpful.

Juan offers suggestions on how to decide if email is the correct medium for a message. For instance, it is inappropriate for negative news (that should be delivered in person). Discussions are also not appropriate for email as too much can be misinterpreted. Time is also a factor, as the word "urgent" means different things to different people, so truly urgent messages should use a real-time medium like telephone, SMS, or IM.

The book also offers separate tips for corporate managers, email senders, and email recipients on how we can write better emails, use the medium more effectively and appropriately, and make sure our real intent is communicated.

Though the book focuses on the corporate environment and isn't necessarily appropriate for sole proprietors, it covers some fascinating aspects of the social problems technology creates. I believe everyone who uses email could benefit from reading this book; it's a great refresher to remind us to make sure our emails are appropriate and communicate what we want.

End of article.