Email – Slow Down and Think About It

Email – Slow Down and Think About It

Marshall was a participant in a Language at Work Email Writing course several years ago. Recently I ran into him and he told me that he had just put to use something he had learned in that course. Of course we love to imagine that people are actually learning things in our courses, and to think that such learning extends beyond the next week is heaven.

Here is the story: Marshall got an email from a client in which the client expressed displeasure, and mentioned actions that he was either taking, planning to take, or had taken – none good. Marshall’s anxious fingers leapt to the keyboard and began composing a response, even though the client’s message was not only alarming, but unclear, and a productive response did not readily emerge. It was then, Marshall said, that he remembered the lesson: If a topic is complicated or sensitive, don’t send an email if you can make a phone call, and don’t make a phone call if you can have an in-person conversation. Marshall placed a phone call to the client and requested a meeting, at which the problem was discussed and resolved.

Disclaimers: This isn’t an unusual situation, and the suggested action is not original with Language at Work. Many people probably do this without much thought.

Those people – the ones who seek human interaction for communication situations that could have unwelcome consequences – know that email is a single-layered communication device. What we have in an email is words. And we usually don’t even have words that have been carefully considered and packaged for maximum effectiveness as we are apt to find in a written document. This is because people usually create email messages as though they were speaking, not as though they were writing. But what is missing in the written-down-speaking that is the common email message, are the other helpful elements of speech: the tone of voice, the facial expressions, the action of the body, the alertness to the reaction of the listener, the adjustments that the speaker makes in response to the reaction he is getting. All we get are words. And words alone can deliver a lot of misunderstanding. Just try saying the word “okay” to yourself with different meanings, for example:

– I love this!

– I’ll try this, but I don’t want to…

– Whatever….

– Stop telling me that!

– What a good job you did!

“Okay” in an email message may be accompanied by context clues, but you see what I mean.

Again, this isn’t a new or original message, but one of the things we like to think we do at Language at Work is show people that they already know most good communication strategies; they just have to slow down and think about them.