Email is the backbone of communication in the work place today. Unfortunately, research suggests that most of us mess up the emails we write and we misunderstand the emails we read. As a result, we may make assumptions, dehumanize others, or participate in ‘in groups’ while unconsciously ignoring others. If we are fortunate, we realize something is off in the relationship or communication and pick up the phone or hop on a video call to clear up the issue before irreparable harm occurs. If not, the email monster may derail relationships, projects, or even a career. This blog provides a look at some of the ways the email monster can sneak up on us. More importantly, it provides useful recommendations to keep the monster at bay!
A 2017 NY Times article by journalist Susan Dominus explains the downfall of social psychologist Amy Cuddy, known for her famous TedTalk on power poses. While the article’s focus is on the changes in research methodology, the underlying issue was the lack of clarity in the email communication between Cuddy and research methodology experts, Drs. Simmons and Simonshon. Revealing in the article was Dr. Simmons reaction when he realized the ambiguity of the initial email sent by him and Simonshon.
“Oh, yeah,” he said quietly. He had a pained look on his face. “We did say to drop the graph, didn’t we?” He read it over again, then sat back. “I didn’t remember that. This may be a big misunderstanding about — that email is too polite.”
The moral of the Times article: even experts can fall prey to the email monster. I’m a firm believer that the best defense is a strong offense. Knowing the tactics used by the email monster is the best means of ensuring we don’t fall prey to making these mistakes. Here are four tactics that can cause even the best of us to mess up our emails:
- Overconfidence: Research shows that we all tend to be overconfident in our email communication abilities. The problem is that our expertise actually works against us. That’s right: everything you know, you assume your reader knows. When we read our own emails, we ‘fill in the blanks’ with our own knowledge. The reader can’t do that…they don’t have OUR knowledge.
- Assumptions: We know our own motivations and intentions; we assume our reader knows them too! Unfortunately, the reader can’t hear our voice. Our voices convey tone and inflections that help people hear beyond our words. (When you think about it, the human voice really is an amazing thing!) Readers cannot not pick up on our humor, sadness, or any other emotion that may have come across through the use of our voice. They can only see the words on the screen.
- Expectations: Expectancies and stereotypes guide our interpretation of information. However, when our expectancies or stereotypes are wrong, our interpretations are wrong. The more ambiguity, the more we rely upon our expectations and stereotypes to ‘fill in the blanks’. This is similar to confirmation bias where we look for information to confirm our biases.
- Dehumanization: Dehumanizing others isn’t always active dislike or attempting to harm them; it results in cognitive indifference to them or overlooking the abilities of others. Treating them as means to an end or someone incapable of helping themselves. Dehumanization begins when we see another person as less than capable of thinking or feeling than we do ourselves. Research show that when someone disagrees with us, if we only read what they write or what is written about them, we begin to think less of their mental ability. We begin to dehumanize them.
Knowing these are the some of the things that will trip us up, how can we ensure that our emails are appropriate, clear, and effective? Use email for sharing concrete facts or data. For example, to share information that is to be displayed in an ad, data for or from an excel file, or content for a blog post. In his best-selling book, Deep Work, Cal Newton details a “process-centric” approach to email to minimize email and its associated mental clutter.
When preparing an email message or responding to an ambiguous email request, take the time to think through what you hope to achieve with the communication. Are you trying to specify what needs to be corrected in a research article or modified on a project timeline? Specify each point in your email.
- Clearly address the subject of the message and determine how to move the subject from its current state to next state or the desired outcome.
- State what you will do and what you would like the reader to do next.
- Offer the reader options when it is appropriate to do so.
- Use online booking software (Book Like A Boss, Acuity Scheduling, YouCanBookMe) that allows invited users to book time on your calendar to avoid back and forth emails over dates/time.
- Clearly specify if a response is or is not needed.
- Before hitting send, read your email one more time to ensure that all details have been covered.
While this approach may take a bit more time to prepare, it avoids unnecessary, time-consuming, and potentially confusing additional email communication. It provides clarity!!!
Above all, avoid using email in place of a verbal conversation. Remember the power and awe of the human voice to communicate more than just words. With the human voice we can:
- Convey rich emotion and urgency just by changing the inflection on one word. Take the words, “I need it by Friday.” With emphasis on the words ‘need’ or ‘Friday’, the listener may pick up on the speakers genuine, significant and urgent need for what is being asked for to be delivered by Friday. With no emphasis, the statement losses some, if not all, sense of importance and urgency.
- Hear more than the words. By listening to another voice, we can learn about that person’s feelings, values, and emotion. We then value them as a human being complete with different opinions and beliefs than our own.
Email is a powerful and useful technology when used competently. By recognizing some of the challenges associated with email (or other text-based communication), you are able to proactively craft a message that is appropriate, clear, and effective. You will also recognize when a video or phone call may be more useful.
Stay well and engaged.