One of the great dangers of email, that staple of modern business life, is the misunderstanding that comes from your witty comment being taken seriously by the dope on the receiving end of your cleverness. I mean, how could someone fail to understand that I was just being funny? How dumb can he be? And yet, that misunderstanding happens all the time.
Beyond cleverness, misunderstandings develop from emails that are too telegraphic, that leave out too much, from emails that go on too long so that they’re not read, and from emails whose supposedly clear instructions somehow get misconstrued, leading to squads of people turning right when they were supposed to turn left, and so on.
We humans are hard-wired to decode each other’s intent – when we’re communicating face-to-face. All of the advantages of email – it’s easy, free, and you don’t have to be standing there when I type out my brilliant missive to you – also contribute to its flaws. Without the face-to-face presence, I can’t perform two incredibly important checks on what you’re saying to me or vice-versa: I can’t easily check for accuracy, and I can’t check for importance.
Face to face we can ask for clarification, say, “did you really mean that?” and otherwise confirm that the order to march off the cliff was exactly that. I can also, pretty much instantly and effortlessly, get a sense of how important you believe your communication is – because you convey emotional import automatically along with the content. Your body language signals how much you care. Your body language also signals highs and lows and other nuances in your communication, so your presence aids in simple comprehension, too. But the most important thing that face-to-face communication provides is the emotional subtext to your content.
It’s important to realize that first, you can’t help signaling your emotional subtext and second, I can’t help receiving it.
Put that into an email and it disappears, for the most part. Because I’m not used to conveying my emotions with mere words, lacking Shakespeare’s facility with the language, my language is liable to fall a bit flat. Or I feel inhibited from adding phrases to clarify my emotional rating of the email, like, “This is really, really, really important to me.” And in any case, would you take that literally, or sense a bit of irony in that last sentence? Who knows – and that’s the point.
Lacking the face-to-face body language exchange, email is an impoverished form of communication.
And don’t forget the feedback loop. Imagine how much it would slow down our email exchanges if you responded with, “Really? You want me to what? How important is that really when I’ve got approximately 15,000 other things to do that right now sound more urgent?” Or the more prosaic, “Did you mean you wanted six eggs on six different days, or one egg each day for six days?”
Language is imprecise and our command of it even more so, and thus email is fraught with danger.
And so wise people have taken to adding all sorts of diacritical marks, abbreviations, and symbols in order to aid in comprehension. For example: !!!!!. The exclamation point to show you’re being friendly. It’s like adding a chirpy tone. So lots of emails I get involve sentence after sentence like this! Every single one! As a result, the device starts to lose its effectiveness!
Lol. Wtf. Iikwimiwhsis. (That last obviously means: If I knew what I meant I would have said it straightaway.)
The other recent trend in email clarification attempts involves emojis. Originally scorned by serious emailers, they now are gradually finding their way into the semi-polite discourse of business emails.:-)
And yet, according to a recent study, they shouldn’t. Dr. Ella Glikson and her team conducted a series of experiments on 549 people in 29 countries and found that, while in-person smiling makes you seem more warm and competent, emojis used in business emails have the opposite effect.
And there’s the email bottom line: use emojis – particularly the smiley face – in order to clarify your emotional meaning, or just to be nice, and you’ll appear less warm and competent.
So for now, in spite of the great need for them, emojis appear to be out of bounds for serious emailers.
But I predict that in a few years emojis will become the norm because of the dangers I’ve described. For now, however, you’ll just have to be clear, detailed, and emotionally transparent.
And I mean that. Lol – no.
We’ll get the emotions right — and a lot else besides — at our Powerful Public Speaking one-day workshop October 24th in Boston. Sign up early — spaces are dwindling to a precious few!