Despite the nearly effortless flow of electronic communication, there are times when email is not the best method for exchanging information and ideas—especially at work.
Emails being seen by eyes other than ones we intended can happen all too easily, at work and in our private lives: we are all familiar with the “oops” moment when we “replied-all” and didn’t mean to, or the forwarding we wished hadn’t happened. And there are other times when it’s just not the most effective way to communicate: even in this world of constant electronic connectedness, some interactions require a more personal approach.
When is email not the right medium?
The quick answers are (a) when you are sharing sensitive, personal, “opinionated,” or workplace-inappropriate content; and (b) when you sense that there might be a communication breakdown or a level of complexity that would translate better in a face-to-face or phone conversation.
When considering the first case, remember that your employer owns your workplace email communications, that they are far from private (as are all emails), and that even when you hit “delete” you can’t control their afterlife (or what others do with them). Some organizations have written policies on electronic workplace communications, but even those that don’t can still monitor or access your emails.
Now for the situations where email scrambles rather than streamlines communication. We’ve all had the experience of being more off-course with someone the more we exchange emails. Often there is an underlying assumption that is not clearly understood, or a simple piece of missing information. In other situations, the emotional subtext is not represented—or inadvertently misrepresented (those all-caps messages can come across as awfully mean-spirited, even if you just forgot that “caps lock” was on).
There are also situations which require the immediacy of a real-time exchange of information, like the questions and answers that can lead to the “aha” moment when a misunderstanding is revealed and corrected. In other words, if the emails are flying and you are not really communicating, it’s time to pick up the phone, knock on the door or cubicle panel, or schedule a short meeting and clear things up. We all need to remind ourselves when—and how—to have real conversations, even if it requires effort to come out of our electronic shells.
What do you think about sending emails? Are they always appropriate? Did you ever receive an email with information that you should have heard in person?
--by Martha Harrison, MPH
Martha Harrison is a writer, editor, and website developer specializing in health, wellness, and workplace issues. She still has a landline and is old enough to remember telephones with dials.