It happened again today. I took one look at the e-mail from a colleague and I asked myself, “What does this mean?” I had requested some information, and she chose to send me a document that was related, but not relevant. So, I had to review it slowly to decide:
• Is she sending this to me thinking it’s what I want?
• Is she sending it because it’s the best alternative?
• Does she intend to send more information later?
• Or is she hoping I’ll get the message and stop bothering her?
That’s a lot of questions sparked by one e-mail, but without a single answer. Multiply that by the 100 messages you get every day, and it’s clear why e-mail, once a miracle of instant communication, is becoming a problem. It’s just too popular. Today, people use e-mail to send business proposals and birthday wishes, to make announcements and appointments, and to provide instructions, feedback and dirty jokes. I’ve heard of people who were fired by e-mail. In just a few years, e-mail has eclipsed the telephone and face-to-face conversation as our communication tool of choice.
But if you’ve ever tried to use the tiny corkscrew on your Swiss Army knife, you know there’s no such thing as an all-purpose tool. Use your knife too much and you’ll bend the blade, dull the scissors and lose the tweezers. E-mail has many uses, but it excels at just a few. To use it effectively, you need to understand its limitations.
For instance: today, I had to set up an appointment with a friend. So I started writing the e-mail. “You OK to meet tomorrow at the Canada Trust Tower? About 2 p.m.? If that doesn’t work, let me know what time — ” And there I stopped. If that time didn’t work for him, he would have to name other times for me to respond to. And then there’s the question of where to meet. If he’s familiar with the building, I’ll suggest one place to meet. If not, it’ll have to be someplace easier to find, like the lobby. Too many options!
Instead of finishing that e-mail, I phoned. We made our arrangements in two minutes.
And that’s the dilemma. E-mail is a medium best suited to simple ideas (“Read this. Do this. Where are you?”) that require basic responses (“Yes. No. On the table by the front door”). Yet, because it’s so easy to use, most of us turn to it first. We use it for complex conversations that it can’t handle. Last month, a group that I belong to tried to schedule a meeting by e-mail. The organizer asked, “How’s the 14th for everyone?” It took two days for everyone to reply, and many of them couldn’t make that date. “Okay,” wrote the organizer. “How’s the 16th?” The comedy lasted two weeks.
There’s more to this problem than scheduling. E-mail works well for “when and where” questions, but not for “why.” If you want explanations, context or details, sorry — this is not a medium for thinking. Your colleagues have grown too used to seeing e-mail as an impulsive, off-the-cuff channel, the godfather of textchat: OMG! 2MI (too much information).
People expect to spend no more time responding to your e-mail than you took to write it. If you say, “Your opinions, people?” expect three words back. When people have to think about their response, you’ve already lost. Half of them will ignore your e-mail, half will delete it, half will forget about it, and half will struggle to reply and then give up. (I made up those stats, but you get the idea.)
The other problem with e-mail has been well documented: low bandwidth. When you talk in person with someone, you assess their meaning through expression, gestures and body language. Even on the phone, we infer meaning from tone and emphasis. With e-mail, all we have is words and the occasional ;-). To be understood, the printed word must work harder than speech, but it rarely does. There is also an intimidating permanence to the printed word. People are more likely to express strong statements and controversial opinions in private conversations than in an e-mail that could be forwarded to anybody.
So pick up the phone more often. If you’re fishing for information, dialling a number may be more annoying than hitting “Reply,” but it will repay you by providing a deeper conversation — with more potential for unexpected ideas and options — than an e-mail will ever do. Similarly, if you’re setting up a lunch date, calling will help you nail down a time and place faster. But it will also alert you to new information, such as other people’s time pressures or food preferences, that may make your meeting more successful.
You can have a meaningful conversation in a steel mill if you prepare properly (bring earplugs). You can also use e-mail to solicit detailed responses, ideas and suggestions — if you make sure people know what you want. Ask for considered answers, not fast ones. Give them some idea how much information you’re looking for. Set a deadline for replying; but ask them not to send anything before the day after tomorrow. E-mail has its faults; but once you’re aware of them you can work around them.