I was listening to a podcast recently where the main protagonist claimed that the telephone on their desk had been reduced to ornament status as a result of email, at first I saw this as a good thing, thinking of the increased productivity that an email has over a conversation. I’ve yet to meet any known ‘waffler’ who recreates this skill in email, added to that you effectively have a fast forward button that allows you to skip to the pertinent part of any email. But the more I thought about it the more I was concerned about tone, the main element which is difficult to get right in an email but which is mostly effortless in conversation.
I’m reminded of a relationship with a former colleague getting off to a particularly bad start via email. He sent me a straightforward request but the tone was arrogant and condescending, I immediately replied but made sure I gave as good as I got, I was after all a long serving employee and deserved a little respect. After a couple of weeks of acidic email tennis another blistering mail landed in my inbox, I started to compose a withering reply but stopped part way through and though, no I’m going to have this out with him in person and marched downstairs to his office and asked him to explain exactly what it was he wanted, he started to explain and in a few sentences he told me what he was trying to do. It was like the clouds parting to reveal the sun, I immediately understood what he was trying to do and that I had completely misunderstood the ‘tone’. I explained my position and my reticence to proceed and we were able to reach a compromise in a few minutes that we could probably never have done via email. After that I learned to disregard any perceived tone in his emails and simply dealt with the facts, as a result our relationship was much better.
All of this leads me to conclude that whilst there are great benefits to be had in speeding communication up via email, but you must understand the tone that is intended by the sender and often the only way to do this is by actually talking to that person and finding out what their default tone is. We should never accept email as a replacement to face to face communication.
It really is good to talk!