Email is a problem, but I’m not the first one to tell you that. However, I can add some thinking that may help you recognize the basis for the problem. That can provide a basis for a solution.
Email is still a relatively new communications mechanism. Sociologically, we are still learning how to use it.
As I recall, no businesses were asking for email, so it doesn’t exactly fit an existing need. Since we didn’t ask for it, we had to decide if it was useful; we generally decided that it was. But, more subtly, we are still figuring out how to use it.
When we humans figure out how to use something, we typically use metaphors. We relate the new thing to something we previously understood.
I see two primary metaphors that could be applied to email: conversation or correspondence. Here’s what I mean:
Using this metaphor, we consider an email exchange to be like an in-person conversation or telephone conversation.
Conversation is synchronous (both parties are paying attention at the same time) and move quickly, at least partly because of the relatively high bandwidth. In conversations, we tend to check frequently with the other person for understanding and agreement or disagreement. (I’ve just worked through a transcription of a zoom meeting; I was explaining a set of concepts to someone else, so I did lots of talking. It’s embarrassing to see how many times I said “right?” or “OK?”. But this is common in that kind of communication.)
Alternately, we can consider email to be more like correspondence via snail-mail or an exchange of memos in an office.
You may never have had the experience of correspondence in this way, but you can see that it would take a relatively long time to get a response – the nature of the communication creates long gaps of time between my question (“How is your family?”) and your response (“Fine, but Aunt Jenny ….”). This kind of communication is asynchronous, only one party is paying attention at any one time, and there are large gaps when neither party is paying attention.
Two primary differences between synchronous and asynchronous communication
In synchronous communication, we 1) expect to consistently have the other person’s attention, and 2) can more quickly determine whether the other person is understanding us, particularly in face-to-face conversation. We look for clues and ask for confirmation, like I mentioned above.
The uncertainty around attention is a primary challenge of asynchronous communication.
Which metaphor do you use?
Which is more applicable?
In our age, most people have extensive experience with conversation. We all grew up with a telephone and face-to-face conversational communication. Few of us grew up writing letters as a primary means of communication. Therefore, more people are experienced and comfortable with a conversation metaphor. So I hypothesize that most people use a conversation metaphor for email.
However, whether we like it or not, email (and chat and text) is, in fact, asynchronous communication. I make this claim because on these platforms we cannot easily check for attention and understanding.
Therefore, if my hypothesis is true, we are applying a bad metaphor to drive our email behaviors and can expect the kinds of problems we see with email.
I accept that email is more like correspondence than conversation.
This means we need to develop correspondence skills as we write and deal with email. There are several constraints to the medium of correspondence that drive good correspondence skills, as compared to conversation skills.
Here are some guidelines:
Get to the point in the first sentence – what do you want?
Cover your why, if at all, in short, concise sentences.
Correspondence is easy to misinterpret. Use direct, simple language.
Write to the specific audience.
Review and edit – try to be as concise as possible – then review and edit again.
All of this means that it takes significant time, planning, and knowledge of your recipient to write good correspondence.
Since we normally use email to speed up communication, we tend to skimp on this effort. This results in poor communication, which probably just multiplies the number of emails required to get a result.
If we can’t or won’t put in the time and effort to correspond well via email, we need synchronous communication. Chat and text are not an improvement on email in this case. We we need to set up a meeting and, thus, move back to a conversation.
At present, we have three choices:
- online meeting
You can also treat any of these channels as a meeting.
If you have time, schedule the meeting in advance and provide some background on what you want to discuss. Follow the rest of the guidance on good meetings.
If you don’t have time, ask your meeting partner if this is a good time. If not, schedule a time.
Special note on voice mail
Voice mail is no better than any other form of correspondence.
In fact, it is likely worse than many because it is difficult for the recipient to glean detailed information from a voice mail. You may have received a voicemail like this: “Hi, this is Steve. Please call me back immediately, if you can, at this number – 543-232-7894. If you’re not available, I can take a call between 3:30 and 4:30 today, or between 10:00 and 11:00 tomorrow.”
Depending on how fast you talk, this might take about 10 seconds. You’ve left some detailed and complex information that’s hard to internalize. Your recipient may have to listen to the recording multiple times to get all of that down.
Therefore, only leave voicemail to say you expect to be available for the next several minutes. In that case, my voice mail will say, “I’m available until 2:45, so feel free to return the call, if you’re available.” Otherwise, I usually fall back to an email asking to schedule a call.
We waste lots of time with email and I blame this on our confusion over conversation vs. correspondence.
In this post, I’ve tried to show that
- Email must be treated as correspondence
- Correspondence is hard to do well
- Conversation is likely the best option among the others
If you’re like me, you’ve seen lots of admonition to have face-to-face conversations rather than exclusively relying on email. You may have ignored that admonition. I hope the idea of metaphors has helped you understand the problem better and, therefore, be motivated to help solve it.
A final thought: some people believe that the ease of sending, forwarding, and cc-ing email has caused us to overcommunicate. I have to agree. One motive is good-old CYA – you copy the boss so you have a defense if something goes wrong. Another, forwarding as ‘FYI’, is simply rude. You don’t have time to help your reader understand why this may be important to them, so you offload that work to them.
The primary argument against cleaning up our communication habits is:
“That kind of communication will take too much time.”
But, think about it: if it’s not worth putting in time to communicate well, how important could the communication be?
Experiment with working on correspondence to improve your communication. Like many things, if you do communication well, you’ll probably have to do it less. And that’s a win, for everyone.