Emails do not have tone, sound, sight or touch. It is a mean of communication that does not humanize the person who intends to communicate and, honestly, humor, sarcasm and double meanings are much better understood when they are accompanied by a gesture like a smile, a rising eyebrow or a wink, than through an email.
I remember the first time I wrote and sent a letter, as well as the first time I received one. However, I do not remember the first time I wrote an email, or how many I have written, not to mention how many I have received (probably millions), but I can say that this has been a good medium in order to keep long-distance communication, especially when it is cheaper than a regular call.
Nevertheless, email is one of the most impersonal ways of dealing with others. It may help us communicate, but it can also put an end to a relationship. The problem often lies in the wrong interpretation of the message: when the addressee reads an email he does not perceive facial expressions or body language or the tone used. All those elements enrich communication between two or more people.
Creating nonexistent problems instead of solving them
The same qualities that made the email a wonderful and efficient tool in a professional environment – its informal approach, register, and the speed of writing and transmitting information – are reasons for numerous and costly misunderstandings that may stall projects, confront co-workers, lead to conflicts with supervisors, and / or transform simple negotiations into an endless process.
When using email, joking tone can be easily misunderstood, being wrongly interpreted as an offense. And for such reason, a tendency to limit the use of the above mentioned tool with colleagues and customers is being repeatedly observed in many companies. From the management of companies that use these standards, email communication is only encouraged when necessary (for example, to call someone for a specific issue). They also try to establish a «face to face» communication, designing open working spaces that encourage direct communication between employees.
In a survey of more than 1,000 workers, Vault (rankings & reviews) found that 51% of those interviewed agreed that, the tone of emails was commonly misunderstood and could be misinterpreted as arrogant, casual or indecipherable. An interviewee actually said «one day I made a question to my boss and she thought the tone was insubordinate. I almost lost my job!”
Practice more face-to-face communication and analyze its impact
The lack of interpersonal communication is one of the main problems at work, because obstacles are bigger than in other environments such as in a family or with friends. If you misinterpret the message from a friend, you can call him and ask what he means. Instead, when a supervisor sends the same message, it can scare employees to death.
In the book «The Psychology of the Internet» Patricia Wallace mentions that we have been learning how to handle the first impression in people for thousands of years», and the fact of being susceptible to some ways of communicating, even in writing, has created multiple ways to grant emails an additional approach as well as some kind of emotion with abbreviations, emoticons and symbols representing feelings.
It also ensures that, in the real world, we know how to ease a scowl with a wink or a smile… but we are still clumsy in using new online tools, and people are making mistakes everywhere. We all agree that, despite teenagers and youngsters who have already adopted an online “slang”; it has not been installed in the professional environment yet.
The «anonymity» that people feels when using a computer usually provokes a disinhibiting effect, because people can say things they would not mention face to face or by phone. They are sometimes unaware of the necessity to use the traditional methods in order to solve a problem. Only with a smile, a pat on the back or adding an affectionate element, you can end a conflict often based on a misinterpretation of the message.
The correct use of the email was never taught to us, just like many other details in our profession. We learned on our own and consequently, we have acquired many bad habits. It is the most widely used tool in Internet, but we should learn when to do our work without it, and to avoid the use of email as a weapon of mass destruction.
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