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 Feature
6 August 2009 | Paul Gostick Blog
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Are We Drowning in Email?
This week Paul looks at how poor email etiquette is affecting both our social and business lives...

  Paul Gostick

Email has become ubiquitous and depending on your point of view, it can be a blessing or a curse. But, love it or hate it, it is here to stay. It is a wonderful tool for keeping in touch with business contacts and friends all over the world 24 hours a day. Geographic boundaries disappear and we live in an immediate world. However, combined with texting (SMS) and social networks, I wonder if electronic communications and technology have dehumanised social interaction and relationships?

There is no doubt that email has made us impatient. Life has become faster and more immediate. Information can be circulated in seconds and decisions can be made on the spot, anywhere, anytime. We have labeled the traditional mail services ‘snail mail’ reflecting our growing impatience with anything that takes longer than a few hours to arrive. When we send an email, we expect it to be received (and read) immediately and we anticipate a prompt response. With the development of email technology and the advent of devices like the Blackberry, we now have the ability to communicate anywhere, anytime, any place and at unprecedented speeds, but has email taken over our lives?

Many people now use email as their primary form of communications so it is hardly surprising that a number of associated problems have begun to emerge in the way we use email. People will often write things in an email that they would not dare to say to a person face-to-face. The perception of anonymity offered by the internet is a false security and can be dangerous because electronic fingerprints are very traceable.

A fundamental, yet critical, difference between face-to-face conversations and email is that email interactions do not convey tone of voice, body-language, facial expression and context, which can lead to misunderstandings. The sender cannot modify their message partway through, if they sense that it is not being understood or causing offence. When you read an email you cannot tell the mood of the person sending the message. The communication is somewhat sterile.

Email rage is a quite a common occurrence. Without access to the qualifiers of body language and tone of voice that accompany other forms of communication, email messages can often come across as detached, even rude. The fact that emails are often written and sent quickly also raises the risk of the message containing something that should not have been said or was said in an inappropriate way.

As soon as email writers start using text phrases to characterise emotion that would normally be delivered via physical body language, the intended message could be misunderstood by the reader. Emotion portrayed in a text based email can be interpreted differently when being read by different people and therefore we cannot be sure that our message will be received as intended.

The words used in face-to-face or telephone conversations tend to fade (unless recorded) with time. However, with email, a permanent written record exists. There is a time-stamped log of what has been said and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 apply.  Employees who write and send emotionally charged emails, therefore, put themselves and the business at risk and there are several cases where email records have been used in legal proceedings.

It always makes me smile when someone sends me an email and a little while later they send a recall notice. If the original mail has left the sending server which, in most cases, will be almost instantaneous, then the recall only serves to send me a second email telling me to, in effect, not to read and delete the former email. Priceless!

The fact is that business is generally best conducted face to face. If that is not possible a telephone conversation is the next best alternative. Sadly, too many of us now hide behind the perceived safety of our PCs, PDAs and typed communications.

Many of us now spend hours of our working day processing to the barrage of emails, that enter our inbox, many of which are spam. Nowadays, I seem to spend more and more time sorting out the emails that matter from all the junk. Email for all its potential benefits has become a corrupted and abused communications medium. One particular peeve of mine is the chronic overuse of ‘reply to all’ and the amount of unnecessary email traffic this creates. 

However, in my opinion, the largest, yet least recognised, problem with email is etiquette. Many businesses have now introduced strict policies advising staff what can and cannot be sent via email. Many have guidelines about the private use of email during work but very few businesses consider it important to train their staff in how to write emails that are clear and concise, will reduce the risk of communication conflict and will create a more professional image for the business.

Recent research by Citrix in Australia highlighted some interesting facts with 61% of respondents admitting having sent or received an email that was misunderstood, 41% having sent an email to the wrong person, and almost two-thirds having hit the reply button without ever considering if email was, in fact, the most effective means of communicating what they wanted to say.

Poor email etiquette affects us all both socially and in our business lives - unknown abbreviations, acronyms, jargon, forwarded chain emails, unwanted messages and ridiculously large attachments to name a few. You can’t reach through your computer cables to retrieve a sent email, so you need to follow good email etiquette in the first place.

In my next blog, I will share with you a few of my pet peeves about the way email is used and my thoughts for achieving effective email communication.

Any feedback and comments are always welcome!! 

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6th August 2008

Hi Paul,

I agree with everything you wrote. I have my own pet peeve to share.  It is not having an email company policy for reading emails. Companies spend thousands of dollars on hardware, software and personnel to administer their email systems, yet they consider email a poor venue for communicating.  Of course when the email server is down, everyone acts like it’s the first sign of Armageddon.  I believe each company should have a policy stating that every employee needs to read through their email 2-3 times a day.  I was at a company who had such a policy and is was amazing how quickly things moved.  This happened after the East Coast employees noticed that the West Coast employees would wait till the end of there day to answer emails.  Days were wasted since the East Coast were gone when they received a reply, usually with questions to be answered.  Someone complained and it finally reached the VP. He made policy on the spot and things were better almost immediately.  What do you think?  And don’t get me started on the people who continuously “reply all”. 

Thanks for listening.

Tom Herrmann

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7th August 2009

Hi Paul.

You're so right, in so many ways. (guess I should have called and told you). 

I've seen chains of emails with 26 responses by six different people. One conference call or meeting could have saved days and dozens of hours of wasted cc's. Thanks.

Bob Anders

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13th August 2009

This article is right on target. Email has become not a means of communication but rather a distraction that prevents us from focusing on getting the work done. As a rule of thumb, email threads that go beyond 3 replies, it is far more effective to pick up the phone and move the communication to a phone conversation than continue htting on the reply button endlessly.

Another rule of thumb is to imagine that your email will be published in the front page of a national newspaper. If your email passes the test, then you may send it, if it doesn't, go back and correct the tone, the content, and the format. This sounds so simple but it is hard to implement. How many times have we received an email and we have to go back again to gather the facts and context, understand the intent of that message or simply have no clue what the email was all about.

In general, technology is there to help us be more efficient, if it is not accomplishing that goal, we need to take action and start setting some ground rules with our co-workers so we can all make the best use of our time. Everybody can appreciate it!

Stephanie Stephan 

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