Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Beware - It's email, not a conversation

Email is a great invention. Almost completely gone are the days when paper memos circulated to everyone’s desk to inform them of everything from status updates to departmental guidelines to health care option changes. Instead we have this electronic medium that is record-able, store-able, and forward-able, something that the old paper system simply could not do. Nothing is perfect, though, so what’s wrong with it?

This email revolution came at a cost: there is something about a message on a piece of paper that makes the author treat it with a certain amount of formality. This feeling is missing with email, which has become much like a conversation where nobody can interrupt you. With this loss of rigor comes an ambiguity in tone.

When you are speaking, your volume, word (or even syllable) emphasis, body language, facial expressions, and a host of other things contribute to the message you are delivering along with the actual words. Email omits all of these things except for the words. If you are not careful, you can create an ambiguity that drastically changes your intended message.

For example, suppose you said to someone, “I hate anyone who ever had a pony growing up.” There are hundreds of ways to say that sentence out loud, and any number of non-verbal cues could spin that sentence to be taken by the listener somewhere between two extremes. At one end of the spectrum, you are obviously joking, trying to be funny, and really do not hate any kid who had a pony growing up. Opposite that, you are pointing your anger at the pony owning public for reasons that are your own. When you speak a sentence like this, you control to a great degree how it is received because of these other communicative forms besides the actual words. If you laugh after you say it (versus sneering), it has a very different meaning.

Now take the same sentence and type it into an email. You no longer control any of the tone of the sentence and are now at the reader’s mercy with regard to its interpretation. Not only does his or her own stance on ponies take on a greater significance in the absence of your ability to alter the message verbally, you cannot control the time or surroundings in which the message is delivered. If you knew someone just came from an equestrian event, you might not utter this sentence out loud, but now that it is in email form, you have no control over the context in which it gets read. Further, your exact words can be forwarded to other people whom you did not originally intend to see the message, which distances your control of the delivery and meaning even more.

The point here is that email is an extremely ambiguous medium and you need to be careful about tone in your words because your voice and body will not be there to establish it for you when the message is delivered. As will be covered in more detail in another chapter, it is a good idea (especially with emails to people above you in the management chain) to have someone else read your message before you send it on. This can help find tonal flags and save you from having to explain yourself later.

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posted by Pete Johnson @ 12:01 PM   0 comments links to this post

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